• The Jillaroos are part of the changing face of rugby league (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Rugby League is one of Australia's most popular sports but yet it has an ongoing image issue that it is working hard to change.
Mary Konstantopoulos

9 Jul 2016 - 4:00 PM  UPDATED 9 Jul 2016 - 4:00 PM

Another week.  Another example of rugby league in the papers for the wrong reasons.

For those of you who have not followed the story, the Parramatta Eels National Rugby League team have a very explosive winger named Semi Radradra.  After failing to return home from Fiji after some approved leave to spend with his family, it emerged last week that Semi had been charged with three counts of domestic violence offences by police in relation to his former partner.

Since these charges emerged, Semi has pleaded not guilty and will face court in August.

Despite only having being charged at the moment, in a world where perception is everything, once again questions arose as to whether women are genuinely made to feel welcome in the rugby league family due to the perceived prevalence of incidents like the one allegedly involving Semi.

I am here to help spread the message that women are welcome in the rugby league family - you just need to look.

Whether that be looking at my friend Michelle Kelly, who has been heavily involved in junior rugby league for decades, Belinda Sleeman, who made her debut as a touch judge in 2015, Yvonne Sampson, who provides eloquent and insightful match-day commentary or Raelene Castle, leading the Canterbury Bulldogs as CEO - women in league are everywhere.

When negative incidents are featured in the paper (and through the years there have been countless examples involving players like Todd Carney, Blake Ferguson and Mitchell Pearce) what it tells me, is that rugby league, much like society has a long way to go.

We live in a country where domestic violence, sexism and gender disparity are, unfortunately, part of life. Whilst we have come a long way, women remain underrepresented in almost every facet of public life - in politics, on our television screens and as directors and leaders of our largest and most significant companies.  

Stats in relation to domestic and family violence are staggering, with more than one woman killed each week in 2016 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, sexism will continue to be reflected in our sports.

Notice, what I did there?  I said our sports and I did so on purpose.

You only need to look back over the year that has been to see what I mean.

For example, we all remember what happened in January this year, when Chris Gay asked sports reporter Mel McLaughlin if she wanted to join him for a drink after the game, before finishing with “don’t blush baby”.  My question after that incident was 'is it too much to ask for a woman to be able to do her job without being called baby."  You can imagine that I was less than impressed.

Disgusted was the best word to describe me after the next incident, when only a couple of weeks ago Eddie McGuire and James Brayshaw decided that it would be funny to joke, on Triple M, about holding AFL reporter Caroline Wilson under water. McGuire even went so far as to suggest that people should stand around and “bomb” her.

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Even if it can be accepted, which I don’t think it can, that this was a ‘joke’, when did it become funny to joke about someone drowning?

This incident was another example of the work we have to do in our society.

What is becoming increasingly pleasing for me though is the public backlash after each of these incidents reflects that society is beginning to shift and people are feeling more comfortable about calling out sexist behaviour, in whatever form it comes.

As is so often the case in sport, it is the actions of the few which undermine the actions of the many. The ‘many’ have done plenty of special things throughout 2016.

Some of my favourite rugby league examples include seeing Jillaroos match against the Kiwi Ferns televised on Channel 9 for the first time earlier this year, seeing Raelene Castle appointed for another term as CEO of the Canterbury Bulldogs, the work NRL ambassadors like Alan Tongue do in the 'Voice Against Violence' space and Yvonne Sampson being the first woman to ever chair State of Origin night.

But my favourite example of all came earlier in June this year when my favourite sports joined forces - because our voices truly are stronger as one. In June, the NRL, AFL, Netball Australia and the ARU announced that they were teaming up with Our Watch to change behaviours that lead to violence against women.

A leadership statement was signed by the CEOs of each sport, committing to encourage respectful relationships, promote female participation and opportunities in their respective sports, and to continue to be brave enough to challenge stereotypes, existing behaviours and underlying attitudes towards violence.

It sent a very strong message when CEO of the NRL Todd Greenberg stood side by side with Ruan Sims (captain of the Jillaroos) and said that there was no place for attitudes of violence in rugby league and then highlighted the various ways in which women are shining in the rugby league family.

So the next time you see rugby league in the headlines for the wrong reasons, remember that it reflects the society in which we live and consider the countless examples of women involved at all levels of the game helping to make it an inclusive sport.

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