Monica Doumit: So what’s fit and proper?

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Israel Folau at the 2017 Rugby Championship. Photo: Flickr/www.davidmolloyphotography.com
Israel Folau at the 2017 Rugby Championship. PHOTO: Flickr/www.davidmolloyphotography.com

It’s illuminating what the NRL will and won’t tolerate

Who knew that you needed to pass a “fit and proper” person test to be registered to play in the NRL?

A club that wants to sign a player cannot do so until their contract is registered, and the NRL needs to be satisfied that the player is a fit and proper person befitting registration before the contract is affirmed and they’re allowed to strap on a boot.

Many professions, including the legal profession, have a “fit and proper” test, but up until this week, I never realised that a similar test also applied in rugby league.

I watch the occasional NRL game and read the news, but perhaps it never occurred to me because NRL players seem to be as much on the front pages of the newspaper for alleged bad behaviour than they appear on the back for their sporting prowess.

The only reason I found out about the test this week was because I was reading about the latest saga involving Israel Folau. After consulting with their sponsors and other stakeholders, the St George-Illawarra Dragons applied to sign Folau to play in the red and white this season.

“Many professions, including the legal profession, have a ‘fit and proper’ test, but up until this week, I never realised that a similar test also applied in rugby league.”

But 48 hours of unsurprising backlash from media and the Twitterati later, the Dragons caved into the pressure and withdrew their application, sparing themselves any more pain and sparing NRL officials a decision about whether Folau was a “fit and proper person”.

I have to say, just as I was disappointed that the Folau case against Rugby Australia settled without going to court and giving us all some clarity about how our justice system would deal with Scripture-quoting Christians, I’m disappointed that we don’t get to find out what decision the NRL board would have made or, more likely, what acrobatics they would have needed to perform to justify deeming Folau improper in the same week they gave Broncos’ star Payne Haas a slap on the wrist.

Payne Haas playing for the Broncos' NYC team in 2017. Photo: Naparazzi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0
Payne Haas playing for the Broncos’ NYC team in 2017. Photo: Naparazzi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

For those who missed it, Haas pleaded guilty to two counts of intimidating police officers in Tweed Heads, including a female officer who he threatened with the words: “Cause you’re a woman, you think I won’t touch ya.”

He was defended by Professor Catharine Lumby, who has been advising the NRL for almost two decades on gender relations. Lumby advised that because of the history in some cultural communities to adverse encounters with police, they “may respond differently to police authority than someone from an Anglo background.” Lumby recommended that no punishment be given, and that Haas should instead be applauded “for showing genuine remorse and apologising”.

The NRL disagreed and has slapped Haas with a $50,000 fine and a three-match suspension.

Lumby also defended Bulldogs player Jayden Okunbor, who brought a 16-year-old girl he had met at a school visit back to his hotel room for sex, and teammate Corey Harawira-Naera who similarly brought her 17-year-old friend back to the same hotel for sex, after he had encountered her at her after-school job. While both players were initially deregistered, their contract termination was successfully appealed and replaced with a fine and suspension.

The two players are set to play this year, although Okunbor is injured and Harawira-Naera is awaiting an NRL Integrity Unit investigation over a high-range drink driving charge from Christmas Eve.

“Lumby recommended that no punishment be given, and that Haas should instead be applauded ‘for showing genuine remorse and apologising.'”

I suppose that the fines and suspensions were better than nothing from the NRL. And the NRL has a history of doing “nothing.” If you recall, its Integrity Unit didn’t even feel the need to investigate player Bryce Cartwright, who infamously paid $50,000 to a former girlfriend so that she would have an abortion.

At the time, his club’s general manager, former player Phil Gould, described Cartwright’s actions as “respective” and “supportive” and commented that Cartwright had done “as well as any young man could in the same situation.”

Funnily enough, what did cause Cartwright’s contract to be threatened was his refusal to get a flu vaccination last year, in the height of the COVID-19 crisis. In that case, he managed to produce a medical certificate that was sufficient to gain him an exemption, and so managed to avoid a suspension and will play again this year.

I’m not trying to jump up and down on the NRL, and even less trying to single out specific players for criticism.

But these players, and many more who have found themselves in similar situations, make for an instructive comparison point: all of these are still “fit and proper” to play in the NRL, but there is a legitimate question over Folau, whose “crime” was quoting Scripture. I’d say it’s a brave new world, friends, but this type of persecution unfortunately does not seem so “new” anymore.

In your charity, can you please spare a prayer for my Uncle Ken, who passed away last weekend? He was an avid reader of The Catholic Weekly and this column, and a wonderful, gentle and generous man.

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