Consent, social media issues engulf NRL again


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All it took was a four-second video filmed on a phone to plunge an entire league into damage control once more.

One year on from its last major sex-related scandal involving Penrith Panthers player Tyrone May a fierce debate over consent, the NRL’s reputation and athlete privacy was ignited after it was reported that the leagues’ integrity unit was investigating yet another incident.

In April, it was revealed that the Parramatta Eels had told the NRL integrity unit about a video of one of their players, engaging in an intimate act with a woman inside a public toilet cubical without either individual’s consent. The club investigated as the video had been distributed to hundreds of people over social media platforms including Twitter and Instagram, as well being passed around to the media.

Prominent names in the rugby league community, including sports journalist and former NRL player Phil Gould, have slammed the individual responsible for recording the footage which – it’s been claimed – was filmed over the door of the toilet stall.

Gould appeared on the Six Tackles with Gus podcast and although he criticised the culprit behind the video creation and distribution, he also warned players to take caution with their privacy as the “reality show” of off-field incidents will end up taking greater precedence over the game.

“There will be privacy issues around this, and there will be privacy issues down the track as to where this stops and to what sort of access people have into [rugby players] lives but at the moment, it’s a reality show – the football is a sideline to the reality show because the media wants the reality show; they’re more interested in that than the football,” he said on the podcast.

Dr Jess Richards, a lecturer in sport management at Western Sydney University, believes that the recent incident with the Paramatta Eels player stems from social media intensifying interactions between athletes and those they communicate with online.

“It’s an issue for all professional athletes, not just rugby players,” she says.

“We’re living in a highly connected era and fans can really easily and directly interact with their favourite footy players online and what that’s creating are these parasocial relationships which have really become intensified and as a result are becoming increasingly complex to navigate – I think both players and fans need to understand that social media and posting on the world wide web is a great tool for interacting with fans and others, but it also holds responsibility and accountability”.

Rugby league’s latest scandal has put the ongoing issue of the blurring of athletes’ private and personal lives under the spotlight.

That blurring has impacted a string of athletes across a variety of different sports in recent times – the Brisbane Broncos’s Kotoni Staggs, former Collingwood player Dane Swan, and former Real Madrid player Matthieu Valbuena are among athletes who’ve faced similar situations as the Paramatta Eels player in question.

Dr Richards suggests that the mindset towards social media and its consequences is something that needs to be examined.

“We really need to educate society more; particularly those who use social media on how something that may seem like something a little bit of fun can be really damaging, so consent as always is key – we need to really re-wire people to understand that posting or uploading content that may be considered offensive or sensitive to someone else you know, it’s not just a bad thing to do but it’s also a criminal offence which you could be punished for,” she says.

“If anyone films anyone in a private context without their consent – and worse, distributes that footage, I believe that you should face the full extent of the law.”

Under Victorian state law, those found guilty of maliciously distributing intimate images without someone’s consent can face up to two years’ imprisonment and up to one year for threatening to send out images without consent.

Following the integrity unit’s investigation, the Parramatta Eels was fined $5000 after being found guilty of bringing the game into disrepute as a result of the video.

Dr Richards says the fine is a result of the NRL acknowledging not just the player being a victim in the situation, but the onus as well on all players to ensure their actions aren’t putting at risk either the leagues’ brand or the game’s reputation.

“Everybody’s behaviour is under tighter levels of scrutiny,” she says. “I think the punishment fit the crime but I think I would like to see the NRL use their platform maybe a little bit as well to kind educate both players but also fans, about social media.

“I think it’s important to remember that there were two victims in this crime and although discussion is really centered around the male athlete because of his position as a rugby league player, there’s justice needed for [the woman] as well,” she says.