Rugby league was always a workers' game and so it is, again, determined to be the last worker to leave when the lights went out, and equally set on being the first in when they come back on. If the National Rugby League wants to consider the full consequences of its plans to re-start the 2020 competition in July or even June, it can take guidance from what is happening on our coasts and our golf clubs.
Like shut-in families, this crisis goes through a phase a day. Last week we were all in this together. This week we are still all in it together except for those who are not. The first flush of novelty, shoulder-to-shoulder unity against the invisible enemy, has given way to fractiousness. As cabin fever sets in, players' unions are in open conflict with their governing bodies. Rugby union players and their administration are brawling over an empty cashbox. Rugby league players are demanding a transparency they never wanted, a consultation they never used, and guarantees of future income that doesn't exist.
ARLC chairman Peter V’landys and National Rugby League chief executive Todd Greenberg.Credit:AAP
Maybe the incurable affliction of our time is our short attention span. Three days of good epidemiological figures and ARL Commission chair Peter V'landys, increasingly the de facto operational head of the NRL, has pronounced the flattening of the COVID-19 curve and its possibilities for rugby league to restart. Short of joining the corona-sceptic hoax brigade, the NRL is champing at the bit to declare the emergency past its worst. Like my daughter, who will do anything you want just as long as you haven't told her to do it, V'landys has been pointing out that the NRL shut down on its own advice, not waiting to be forced by the government, as if this is to the NRL's credit and frees it up to recommence whenever its own advice says so. But that's true to the spirit of a sport that has always been about understanding the rules, and then working out what you can get away with.
The flipside of any public health success Australia achieves in moderating the virus's spread is that it encourages those who never believed in it in the first place. It's an adaptation of the free-speech wars, where dissenters rally around the banner of their self-designated expertise.
What does this have to do with our coasts and golf clubs? The NSW government lists "exercise", without further definition, as one of the permitted "reasonable excuses" for being outside, as long as physical distancing is observed. I've been at the beach on some of those days when photos were taken of people "flouting" the rules and putting public health at risk. The truth was that nearly all of those people were alone or in pairs, were running or walking and not gathering, and keeping a safe distance. What touched the public nerve was not the "flouting" of the rules so much as the apparent display of hedonism and frivolity. Whatever side of the fun-police barricade you stand on, it's understandable that exercise-as-hedonism would provoke this reaction.
Down the south coast, where there is a well-documented hostility to city folk coming to sit out the crisis in their holiday houses, a similar dynamic is at work. I have a friend doing just that in a south coast village. The few locals he has seen have been friendly – but it helps that he is hobbling around on a crutch while recovering from surgery rather than frolicking in the waves with a smile on his face. People who are suffering take exception to their space being used for pleasure-seeking.
The line between exercise-as-business and exercise-as-hedonism is where the NRL must tread with extreme care.
Golf courses, meanwhile, are in chaos. Last week they were open, this week they were shut, but now the government has allowed them to be open again. The national body, Golf Australia, has advised that they shut. Many clubs have defied this and stayed open. Golf, like running, cycling or swimming and surfing at the beach, can be played in physical isolation. It needn't compromise public health. But is golf an offensive form of self-indulgence?
On the other side – ironically, dominated by elderly voices and their champions such as re-tooled free speech warriors Mark Latham and Ray Hadley – golf is just exercise, and especially for elderly, isolated people, it does more good than harm. And who said people playing golf were having fun anyway? Sydney golf pro David Saunders estimates 80 per cent of golfers exist in a place called "golf hell". Like those grimacing distance runners and cyclists, most golfers only begin to enjoy themselves once it's over. It's not hedonism, it's a peculiar form of masochism. Golf Australia, which continues to advise clubs to remain closed, does not classify the game as a form of "exercise" for current purposes.
What, really, is "exercise"? If it's physical and mental maintenance, one's personal health-industry job, then it is universally permitted. Cyclists and joggers beating their way up hills, grim solo outdoor bench-pressers – all good. But if exercise brings frivolity, hedonism or public displays of joy, then it upsets others. It's not functional exercise, it looks more like play.
This line between exercise-as-business and exercise-as-hedonism is where the NRL must tread with extreme care. V'landys is stewarding rugby league like a business that needs to keep people employed, a family that must be fed. He is exploring every option to get income flowing back into the "game". That is a key part of the NRL's job, and they would be remiss if they acted otherwise.
The paradox is that to excusably restart the competition in mid-year, in a sealed environment, under safe conditions, rugby league must not be a "game". It must be an essential form of economic activity, exercise-as-business, without a hint of play. It can be functional but not joyful. Stripped back to its essence as a manufactured product, as joyless as a gym punishment session, it's hard to imagine such a thing being very watchable. When the world is back on its feet, it will celebrate sporting events without restraint. But if a particular code tries to jump the gun, returning with unseemly haste, putting pragmatism ahead of humanity, beware the backlash.
Why should the NRL care? Why not plough ahead in its own little world and provide that all-important broadcast content, get to that next payday?
Professional leagues derive their income chiefly from two sources: broadcast rights and sponsorship. Whether the penny has dropped or not, future broadcast money in Australia will be substantially less. Which means sponsorship will be increasingly important. Sponsorship comes when a business has a good reputation. By hastening to get onto the field when so many are dying, by treating itself as an essential exercise industry, the NRL is building a reputation for servicing its true believers. Perhaps that is responsible short-term management. But the quid pro quo in the long term is that its future income will come from no further than the boundaries of that bubble. Insular is tight. Insular is strong. Insular won't ever be rich again.
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