He's gone from the beach house to the dog house. From Bondi to Broome - today, everyone is talking about Mitchell Pearce, the captain of the Sydney Roosters who has been embroiled in an Australia Day scandal where he was filmed simulating a sex act with a dog, forcing himself inappropriately on a woman and sitting on a cushion stained by his own urine.
Following this latest incident involving an NRL player behaving badly, fans are once again asking - in light of such incidents, how on Earth can we take the NRL's 'commitment' to White Ribbon Day seriously? What is even the point of having a Women in League Round? Are we making any sort of progress?
I'm here to tell you that we are.
The reality is, domestic violence, sexism and gender disparity are, unfortunately, part of Australian life. Whilst we have come a long way, women remain underrepresented in almost every facet of public life - in the political arena, on boards and as executives of our largest and most significant companies. The statistics in relation to domestic and family violence are staggering, with more than one woman killed each week in 2015 as a result of such behaviour. On average women will end their careers with less superannuation than their male counterparts and a gender pay gap still exists.
The NRL is a microcosm of the society in which we live, so until issues of gender disparity are addressed nationally, the kinds of incidents involving Mitchell Pearce will continue to occur and we, as sports fans will continue to be disappointed.
But does that mean that the role of women in the NRL is not taken seriously?
Certainly not - you only need to look at the growth in Women in League round to see how the sport has started to change (slowly but surely).
Since its beginning in 2006 (we are celebrating 10 years of Women in League this year), Women in League round has grown from a round celebrating pink, mothers who cheered their children on from the sidelines and volunteers at local clubs, to recognising the role that women play at all levels of the sport.
When you look at the statistics, the role that women are increasingly playing in the sport becomes a lot clearer and I would go so far to say that the NRL are beginning to set a standard when it comes to gender diversity in sport. The statistics reflect this:
- in 2015, there was a 22% growth in female participation in rugby league, with over 411,410 women and girls playing rugby league;
- women are the largest and fastest growing influence group in the game today; andalmost 40% of the game's administration is made up of women.
- almost 40% of the game's administration is made up of women.
For a sport that is often criticised for the attitudes of a suspect few towards women and labelled 'backwards', the last 2 years had seen tremendous progress.
Moments that stand to mind are Raelene Castle leading the Canterbury Bulldogs to a Grand Final berth in 2014 (following the incident at Coffs Harbour, who could have possibly contemplated that the Canterbury Bulldogs would appoint a female CEO). The emergence of female referees like Belinda Sleeman and Kasey Badger. Jenni-Sue Hoepper being recognised at the Dally M Awards last year as the first winner of the female Dally M award. The voices of our female board members like Marina Go, Rebecca Frizelle and Tanya Gadiel. The drive and passion with which our COO Suzanne Young speaks about diversity and the need for women and girls to feel welcome in all aspects of the rugby league family.
The NRL Community program continues to work with organisations such as the Full Stop Foundation, which looks to put a stop to violence against women (full stop) and White Ribbon and even if progress means changing the attitude of one player at our time or taking 2 steps forward and one step back, working with the players is critical to ensuring that such prevailing attitudes are not only removed from the game, but from Australian society as a whole.
But back to Mitchell Pearce, the issue at hand. I hope that the action taken against him is swift.
Our players are role models - whether they want to be or not, they are and always will. They are role models to their team mates, to young children and to our community. But being a role model does not mean any more than having to be a decent human being and on Australia Day, Mitchell Pearce well and truly failed at that and it is not the first time he has failed.
So where to from here?
Prior to the introduction of the NRL Integrity Unit, it was clubs who assessed player misbehaviour and determined punishment, which is why we saw such tremendous inconsistency. It was the Canberra Raiders who often led the way in regard to taking a strong stance, releasing players like Blake Ferguson, Todd Carney and Josh Dugan, despite these players moving on to other clubs and moving on with their careers (to the detriment of the Canberra Raiders).
Should the Sydney Roosters not take appropriate action, the NRL will step in and I hope they will step in to show younger players that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable in the game of rugby league and that whilst second changes are afforded. Whilst it is not an incident that deserves deregistration, as some are suggesting, his punishment should include a lengthy period on the sideline and a rehabilitation programme that will help him begin to aspire to the values and qualities that are considered acceptable by society.
Mitchell Pearce has done a disservice to the game that rewards him so well and the game that so many of us love and are passionate about. But please do not allow him to undermine the work that the NRL is committed to doing in regard to gender diversity or the work that the NRL Community Ambassadors do in our communities. Our code is not perfect, but let's continue to work together to change one mind at a time from the grassroots to the locker rooms.