RUGBY league loves a tale of redemption.
Russell Packer bashes a stranger unconscious, stomps on his head, spends a year in jail and returns to become a university-educated, model citizen.
Matt Lodge terrorises a family in New York and, after a couple of years in purgatory, resurrects his career at the Broncos, after attracting offers from almost every other club.
Blake Ferguson emerges after an indecent-assault conviction to represent NSW and Australia and win a grand final.
Among his premiership-winning Roosters teammates is Zane Tetevano, who during his time at the Knights assaulted his then girlfriend on five separate occasions, punching, kicking and throwing her around the bedroom.
More recently Jack Wighton was cleared to resume playing in round one next year, having copped a 10-game suspension and $30,000 fine from the NRL after beating up a handful of men in Canberra who apparently had done nothing to provoke him.
They’re young blokes who make mistakes, and everyone deserves a second chance. Or so the theory goes.
But what if there was no such leniency?
What if NRL players convicted of serious crimes were quite simply blacklisted, forcing them to ply their trade in the English Super League, French rugby union, or find a real job digging ditches?
It’s a question Sporting Declaration has been pondering this week in the aftermath of the shocking case involving superstar Jarryd Hayne.
Now the first thing that needs to be said is Hayne is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
There have been any number of high-profile rugby league players over the years accused of horrible misconduct, yet as past incidents involving Brett Stewart, Greg Bird and the Bulldogs in Coffs Harbour would indicate, such allegations do not always stand up to the scrutiny of the legal system.
At this stage it is unclear how Hayne intends to plead after being charged with aggravated sexual assault arising from an alleged incident in the Hunter Valley on September 30.
He has strongly denied separate claims that he raped a woman in California in 2015 during his much-publicised NFL stint with the San Francisco 49ers.
Police investigated that incident in 2016 and did not find enough evidence to lay criminal charges, but the alleged victim has since launched civil action.
Given the gravity of the Australian allegations, the possibility that Hayne’s NRL career might be over would appear the least of his worries. If found guilty, he faces the prospect of spending years in jail.
Parramatta and the Dragons, both of whom had been hoping to sign Hayne for 2019, must be extremely relieved negotiations dragged on and he did not actually put pen to paper.
If Hayne was a contracted player at either club, it is entirely feasible that he would be continuing to train and prepare for next season. As a free agent, however, he has no employer – which means no club has a vested interest in him.
The NRL’s attitude in recent times has been to allow the legal process to take its course, unless there is undeniable evidence of guilt. After the Stewart controversy in 2009, when he was banned for five games, only to be cleared of all charges in court, the governing body has taken a more circumspect approach.
But once players are proven to have committed anti-social behaviour, and been convicted in a court of law, how should they be treated then?
The current policy seems to be de-register the player, give him a year or two to verify that he has learned a lesson and transformed into a fit-and-proper person, and then throw him a career lifeline. Usually the player is not about to make the same mistake twice.
But anyone who thinks such goodwill applies across the board is naive. A second-rate player is unlikely to receive a second chance.
Clubs will only stick their necks out for those they believe are good enough to help them win games.
Given that there will be almost 500 players at the 16 NRL clubs next season, it is unrealistic to expect all of them to behave all of the time.
But if there was a zero-tolerance attitude towards criminal behaviour, would players be more inclined to think twice before engaging in inappropriate and possibly career-ending conduct?
Consider an incident 12 years ago. A young woman, celebrating her 18th birthday, was approached by an outstanding young player in a nightclub, who stroked her hair ... and then bit her on her upper arm.
The woman complained to the player’s club, who fined him $1000 and issued a public statement. The player was quoted in a press release as saying his actions were “childish and unacceptable”.
As sanctions go, it was little more than a slap on the wrist. A token gesture.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Parramatta should have taken a firmer stance.
Maybe then Jarryd Hayne would be getting ready for his next game of footy, rather than his day in court.
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