Rugby league’s understandable sensitivity

It seems that periodically the world of rugby league has to stop and defend itself from attack or mistreatment in the mainstream media. Often it’s the BBC who are the deserving object of rugby league’s collective ire, especially as an organisation that totally denies that rugby league fans could possibly exist anywhere outside of the north of England. Yet just as often the ire is directed towards an individual journalist who makes an ill-informed joke about or criticism of our game.

This time the subject is Marc Padgett, who in his ‘The Sporting Week Ahead’ column in the Independent saw fit to criticise the launch of the Northern Rail Cup.

This was perhaps a particular blow for rugby league fans, as the Independent is home to the excellent Dave Hadfield, one of the game’s most respected writers. It was certainly a particular blow for me as the Independent is my own newspaper of choice, especially on Wednesdays – I never miss Mark Steel.

Padgett’s now oft-quoted remarks received particular criticism from Love Rugby League’s own Dave Parkinson, who felt Padgett “slurred rugby league, and belittled it”. Parkinson, along with James Gordon and Adrian Jackson actually attended the NRC launch and recorded some very interesting interviews for this week’s episode of ‘Talking Points’, belying Padgett’s view of how dull the event would be. (Incidentally, if you haven’t listened to ‘Talking Points’ yet then make sure you do … right after reading this column).

Parkinson called for a boycott of the Independent – Hadfield-authored material excepted. But I can’t help but feel this is an overreaction, and not just because it would leave me as a Guardian reader. For one Padgett has already responded with an apology, admitting that his “lame attempts at humour” were ill-judged. Secondly, while this was a painfully unfunny and possibly offensive remark, it’s not as though other sports escape Padgett’s criticism. Not even soccer comes out unscathed, while sometimes rugby league is presented in a much more positive light. This is an extract from a column in August last year:

Just rubbish football.

Dullsville, unless Europa League qualifiers are your bag.

A potential rugby league humdinger as St Helens play Leeds in the Challenge Cup semi-final. 

As rugby league fans we can be overly-sensitive in these situations, but that’s understandable given that our game has often been the subject of jibes in the media, often in a way that other sports would never be treated. For instance, Mike Cleary, rugby union blogger for the Telegraph devoted an entire article in December 2006 to his hatred of rugby league, which began “I don’t like rugby league. I find it dull, insular, repetitive and dreadfully chippy”.

It’s odd that a rugby union correspondent should feel the need to spend so much time writing about another sport – could you imagine, for instance, a tennis writer giving over an entire column to criticisms of cricket? No, that would be ridiculous – but rugby league seems to be fair game. Perhaps the most well-known example of this phenomenon is that irksome little creep Steven Jones, rugby union correspondent for The Times, who every now and then can’t help but advertise his aggressive dislike of rugby league.

“It’s a small ‘World’ …” wrote Jones in February 2008.  “This week brings the ‘World’ Club Challenge in rugby league. Don’t laugh. They had to call it that. Well, the grand title ‘Small Bit of England v Small Bit of Australia Challenge’ has no ring to it for the marketers.” In an interview towards the end of 2009 Jones was quoted as asking “when will you realise that rugby league is dire and dying and that their players are useless in union? In the UK, league is disappearing off the face of the Earth”. It’s small wonder then that league fans can be a bit sensitive to media hostility.

Yet, on this occasion Padgett’s remarks were due to an ill-judged attempt at humour, to enliven an article that could potentially be so dull as to, choosing a phrase at random, make you want to stick pins in your eyes. We can differentiate between the buffoonery of Padgett and the bitterness of Jones. As we move into a new season there will be people ready to heap bile and criticism on our game, but this is one occasion when maybe we don’t need to get too worked up.

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