The Guardian • Issue #2063

Rugby: Class Struggle at the Heart of the NRL

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2063
NRL sport in play.

Photo: NAPARAZZI – (CC BY-SA 2.0).

One of the more high-profile industrial disputes this year has been between the National Rugby League (NRL) and the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA), as the RLPA attempts to re-negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). With the negotiations now running into their 20th month, players have engaged in work bans on media appearances. This means no interviews, even including State of Origin Game 3, one of the biggest events on the rugby league calendar.

This work ban is designed to hit the NRL where it hurts, depriving media outlets who pay large sums to the NRL for coverage of events access to players whose post-match interviews drive viewership up, creating revenue. The aim of this action is to wedge the media to put pressure on the NRL to resolve the dispute.

The response to the RLPA’s work ban from the NRL has been a full-frontal assault by the media on the RLPA and players. With familiar trope seen in most industrial disputes, the media has accused players of “being too greedy” and accusing the industrial action of “hurting the fans.” NRL CEO Andrew Abdo has continued to give no ground. Former NRL players have gone on the attack of the RLPA, targeting RLPA CEO and former NRL player Clint Newton. In a particularly tense interview Newton was verballed by former NRL players Jason Hooper and George Tallis on Triple M radio. The most ironic part of this farce was that Tallis himself was heavily involved in the RLPA when the first collective agreement was struck in 2003, establishing the long sort after goal of minimum wages for players.

Currently the NRL has presented players with a “take it or leave it” offer. With wages settled in 2022 according to RLPA, the NRL is attempting to water down conditions of players, most notably hardship payments to injured players. This at the same time that the NRL is demanding that players play more matches, increasing their likelihood of injury.

This is galling if you consider the severity of injuries NRL players receive during their playing careers. Musculoskeletal injuries are universal in professional rugby, heavily impacting the ability of players to work beyond their playing careers. The growing awareness of the brain condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is common in contact sports, has resulted in more stringent regulations on head contact. This is while the critics continue to say that they are “paid too much.” When you consider the minimum salary for a NRL player begins at $130 thousand (currently) and the average career is only 10 years in length, the need for ongoing payments post career becomes more apparent. NRL players suffer significant health issues post career, impacting their ability to earn a living after they put down the footy. It is only a select few who end up on million-dollar contracts or go on to commentate.

The RLPA is also still attempting to obtain a CBA for the women’s league, which like many women’s sports leagues is drastically underpaid in comparison to their male counterparts.

These disputes are not new in the NRL. Players have long fought against the same exploitation that all workers suffer under capitalism and have a proud history of struggle that sees its roots in the working-class break from rugby union. The players themselves often have history with other forms of organised labor. In many ways, class struggle is sewn into the fabric of Australian rugby league.

The RLPA itself got its start in 1979, in the wake of rugby player Dennis Tutty’s high court win against the NSWRL for his right to transfer teams. Tutty was a Balmain native and grew up around the waterfront where he was exposed to the struggles waterside workers and their unions went through. The right for players to choose has long been a centerpiece of struggle in rugby league. Again, in the 1980s the RLPA went up against the NRL (at the time the ARL), to defeat a proposed drafting system that would see players lose the ability to move teams on their terms. Despite all these successes the RLPA still struggled to achieve a minimum wage for players. That was until 2003, when the first CBA was struck, and this was only after players threatened to boycott the Dally M Awards. At the time, the RLPA under the leadership of Newcastle Knight’s prop Tony Butterfield considered itself a union and functioned as such. However, it soon shifted towards a professional association under Matthew Rodwell and began to be funded by the NRL. This shift has meant the RLPA has over the years lost its ability to directly confront the NRL, as its own revenue is sourced from the league and not from the players themselves, at times becoming a collaborationist outfit. Recent developments indicate the possibility of the RLPA returning to its former glory. However players will need to demand serious reform inside the RLPA itself to transform it back into a proper union.

Regardless of the shortcomings of the RLPA we must support the players in their dispute. These players are workers and they put their own health at risk every day to entertain us and earn the NRL and its media sponsors millions. Players deserve to be paid a wage that will support them post-career and be provided with ongoing support for the injuries they will inevitably incur. Women players deserve a CBA in line with their male counterparts. What this dispute really highlights is that class relations are the same no matter where you are. Capitalism will come for any worker no matter how beloved they are. Even in the NRL, the players we look up to are just as at risk of exploitation as any other worker and their fight for justice is no different.

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