The view from the front office: Pearce, pooches and player behaviour

No, I’m not talking about Rugby League the game, I’m talking about the game of player discipline.

There are two very different aspects of player discipline. There is the discipline which involves a player turning up to training on time, fit and prepared. The player who approaches every drill with utmost attention and professionalism and who does his recovery exercises and preparation for the next session or match religiously. This type of discipline refers to the player who gives away few penalties, sees little suspensions and completes sets over 80% as a rule.

The other type of discipline referred to when dealing with Rugby League players surrounds off-field behaviour. I don’t like the term discipline being used in this area because behaviour is exactly what it is, whereas discipline is how they approach their day-to-day routine and work expectations.

Let’s park the discipline side of it then. Rugby League is a game that is respected and acknowledged among professional sports worldwide as being for supreme athletes. A game that requires a wider spectrum of fitness, athleticism and skill at a higher level than most other team sports. To play or coach at elite level you must be disciplined. You are not long in the game if you do not apply discipline to your training, recovery, match day preparation and play.

Good clubs and coaches control and focus their squads individual discipline into a team and club unit that complements and strengthens each individual part, and games are won. With some luck trophies are won at the end of the season.

But smartphone footage of Mitchell Pearce has circulated worldwide this week. He isn’t the first and won’t be the last Rugby League player to be filmed or photographed being a dickhead on the drink. Sorry, but that’s what it is.

Nothing I can see in that video is criminal and Mitchell does himself no favours at all with his actions, but unless he has breached a club drinking policy I’m not sure it is a hangable offence, far from it. The focus of criticism is around his actions with the dog and I’m a huge lover of our canine friends and animal welfare in general, but a silly action ( stupidly silly) for a second or two should not be blown up into being called a lewd act, nowhere near.

Mitchell’s fate is in the club’s hands and they will have an interesting decision to make given they have two players at the club other than Mitch with serious criminal matters in their lockers.

I’ve had to lead discussions and club policy on off-field matters myself and it’s a very difficult process. Arguments from all sides are presented, commercial, image, contractual, criminal, legal, financial, club welfare, player welfare etc.

The fact is, the media will never stop covering and reporting on off-field behavioural incidents Rugby League players are involved in, or musicians, actors, footballers. So let’s forget shooting the messenger. The majority of scandals in recent years have been communicated and distributed by social media and smartphones anyway, so the mainstream media rarely instigates these anymore – some might say Mitchell Pearce deserves penalty for failing to understand he was being filmed the other day.

Governing bodies in Rugby League have not provided much support at all for clubs and individuals when it comes to off-field behaviour. Players are contracted to clubs and the NRL has taken the stance over the years of sitting on its hands when an incident occurs and waiting to see what the club does first.  It’s incredibly difficult for clubs and the NRL doesn’t help. It makes no secret of the fact they frown upon poor off-field behaviour and makes comments to that end publicly. It also publicly says it will wait and see what the club does before taking further action if necessary.

The club then, often under intense public and media pressure, has to fully investigate the matter. It has a duty of care to the individual concerned as well as contractual obligations in terms of process. Remember it is the club, not the NRL or RFL, who are at risk of legal action for breach of contract, unfair dismissal, or other process or duty of care breaches.

It is also the club who have their “owners” – the fans to answer to and their sponsors, some of whom will want the player sacked and others will want them retained at all costs.

All of this with the over-arching threat of NRL/RFL sanctions if any action, or inaction, is deemed unsatisfactory by the governing body.

The problem is, the governing bodies refuse to take the lead on this. It suits them to have all risk on the club and allowing the club to be the public face of any sanctions or punishments on the player.

The NRL even has a policy of not really de-registering a player until a club has sacked them, and then says “ we’ll make a decision on whether we will allow him to play again at such time as a club asks to register him in future”. I’m serious, there are no parameters, no KPIs for a player or club to reach in order to gain re-admission, nothing. When the governing body wants to let them play they will.

Obviously the main issue with all of this is consistency and it is what drives fans mad with frustration. A running joke among NRL clubs is that you hope a player is charged by police these days in any off-field behavioural issue. Why? Because then you can leave it in the laws’ hands, sit on the fence and wait for a court to determine guilt. If found not guilty you can say society has found the player has done nothing wrong and all is forgotten.

A drunk player being obnoxious  found passed out on the street, or at a end of season end party at a dubious establishment, cause just as much angst for a club but in many ways more, as they are asked to make moral judgement without any laws or governing body rules to measure the behaviour by.

On arriving at Cronulla in 2009 the club was in disarray. The star halfback was suspended pending a domestic assault charge, the star back-rower had tested positive to performance-enhancing drugs, the other half was filmed wandering drunk down the main drag of Cronulla tripping over pot plants whilst a back-rower was on assault charges for a misplaced punch in the mosh pit at a Korn Concert. The CEO and coach were being investigated for a secret bank account and insurance fraud scheme, the CEO had left a female staffer with a black eye following an incident in the offices, and an incident from seven years prior in 2002 involving group sex was back on the front page after a new interview was aired during this period.

All of this at a time when the bank was knocking on the door weekly wanting to foreclose on the clubs’ debt and running capital was next to zero.

The game, and indeed the country, had had enough of the Cronulla Sharks. We slowly and methodically began to re-build and our mantra was squeaky clean. Not even a parking fine associated with the club could be risked as we fought to regain trust and sponsorship.

Needless to say poor off-field behaviour wasn’t something we could afford, it was genuinely life-threatening for the club in those circumstances.

We had some bumps along the way, notably our captain being fined by police for relieving himself in the Sydney CBD at a taxi rank, and we learned a lot as a board and me as a manager when dealing with that.

During my time at Cronulla we let players go for off-field behaviour. Criminal charges for domestic violence, consistent poor discipline etc.

We also signed players with prior form for off-field issues. How can we justify that you ask?

Well every decision was taken with huge gravity, thought and measure. In the absence of any governing body rules or independent tribunal, we had to make decisions on individuals that when all was said and done, were based on what we called above the line and below the line behaviours. Some things in life are just bad behaviour. When all contributing factors are taking into account, some behaviour is good and some is just unacceptable in society and club’s standards are usually reflective. If a player lacks respect, my experience tells me trouble may not be too far away.

That said, I’m a huge believer in second chances and I don’t think chances and opportunity to guide and mould players with history of issues should necessarily end with a second chance. We too often as a game jump on incidents and throw young men out of the game. I understand why this is done more than anyone having endured the financial and club risk pressures that such poor publicity can create. However, we need to be realistic and proud as a game in terms of the diverse and varied backgrounds and upbringings of those we seek to attract and play.

Similar to boxing, many young men with behavioural issues, family dysfunction and difficult life circumstances are drawn to Rugby League. They are often encouraged into the sport by genuine heroes, coaches and community leaders who seek to guide them into a worthwhile pastime, learn the skills and discipline of a team environment, and learn to work within rules and parameters for a greater goal.

In short, Rugby League has provided far more young men with purpose and a pathway in life than the relatively tiny percentage of professionals who are caught with a dose of the dickhead disease out on the drink. I’m proud of that for the game and I think the game should be too.

I’ve had personal experience with some players who have infamously been under the spotlight for high-profile behavioural stuff-ups. Mostly they have made my life easier than any other players at the club in terms of their professionalism, respect of supporters and staff, time commitments to community activity and charity, and keeping themselves fit and healthy. They’ve messed up on a night out that usually happens four times a year, if that. I know plenty of good people in the legal, finance, TV, and education industries who act like dickheads on the drink most Friday nights.

Clubs need to look at these things in totality, not just the incident that has most recently travelled the world via social media. If the behaviour is repetitive and the player is not respecting the sincere efforts of staff and coaches to guide and help them over time, then it’s time to cut them loose and try and guide them to a club or environment better suited or where less pressure may be on them.

If the behaviour is a one-off and contrition is obvious and sincere, then process needs to be followed and the system needs to be actioned to work on it not happening again.

Damian Irvine is the former chairman of NRL club Cronulla Sharks and achieved the ‘impossible’ by saving them financially and leaving the club as one of Sydney’s richest. Now in Football, the Australian was named Best Marketer in UK Football in 2014 while at Notts Country and is the UK’s leading rugby league consultant to chairmen, commercial managers and CEOs. Irvine currently works as the Head of Commercia Activities at Wycombe Wanderers can be found on Twitter at @damianirvine

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