The issue of player behaviour: can anything be done?

Another season of rugby in the Southern Hemisphere beckons and hot off the heels of the English Rugby World Cup team’s tour of the pubs of New Zealand, Quade Cooper finding himself in the Australian press accused of comporting himself in a less than desirable manner whilst on holiday and within the last 24 hours, Willie Ripia resigning his position at the Western Force after allegedly being caught stealing from his team-mates on CCTV.

Willie Ripia at Western Force training

Willie Ripia in happier times Photo: Western Force Facebook page

Let’s be upfront here: the purpose of this article is not to rehash the alleged behaviour nor to bemoan the punishment or lack thereof that has arisen from these incidents.   The fact is no matter what side of the fence you sit on when it comes to the player behaviour debate we all agree that something happened, it has been dealt with and everyone has moved on.   Hence what happened is not germane to what follows.

Why write this article then (I sense readers to be quizzically asking)? The answer to that question is that the issue of poor behaviour by some professional sportsmen when they are “off duty” has been a constant distraction from the sports they play. Since the advent of the professionalism in sport, society’s thirst for any hint of scandal has risen dramatically and is now driven by the age of instant news and social media.  In that context it is appropriate to ask the question: what can be done about player behaviour?

Has player behaviour gotten worse?

Players who played the games we loved in the bygone eras were the same as the players of today.  They were:

  • All between the ages of 20 and 34 (give or take some years either side);
  • They all liked a drink and, in most cases, a smoke; and
  • They got up to mischief when they were “off duty”.

Conduct that would probably have seen the players of this era on the front pages of the newspapers and going viral on the internet back then did not raise an eyebrow of the administrators nor lead to the journalists of the time raising a pen to write about what happened.

Any fair-minded reading of any disposition on sport from the 70s or 80s has to form that conclusion.  For examples consider the exploits of one D Walters referenced in many books about cricket (most recently in Greg Chappell’s excellent “Fierce Focus”) or any biography of a rugby league or rugby union player from that period. 

Adam Ashley Cooper shirtless

Adam Ashley Cooper has his picture tweeted!

The difference is that we live in different times to the framers of the rules of the sports that we love, the legends who adorn the names of trophies present day stars play for and even the players who shaped this generation’s love of sport in the 70s and 80s.  Players in those times did not have to worry about a picture appearing on twitter, a groupie with a camera taking a photo at an inopportune moment or the perils of SMS messaging. 

It would be easy to stop here and theorise that the issue of player behaviour has been around since William Webb Ellis first played rugby and therefore we should not be bothered by it.  However, the fact is that the very basis for coming to that conclusion (players have not changed; the times have) is the reason that it is necessary to probe further into the impact of player behaviour and whether anything can be done with respect to this issue.

In changed times, why does player behaviour matter?

Times have changed and sport is big business:

  • Sponsors pay the GDP of small countries to get their brand on jerseys;
  • The prices of tickets compared to previous eras are astronomically higher;
  • Media deals for the rights to show sport on television, radio and the Internet are now quantified in the hundreds of millions rather than the millions; and
  • Memorabilia such as jerseys and hats are broader in range, more popular and more expensive than ever.

The public face or brand of any team, and in indeed any sporting code, at any time has hinged around the image of the players within the team and, in particular the marquee players.  Clear cases in point are the consecutive years of NRL advertising campaigns that have been derailed by the player featuring in the campaign becoming embroiled in a scandal near the campaign launch.

That means that, even though the actual behaviour of the players has not changed all that much over time, the impact of such behaviour has exponentially increased.  Clubs face various impacts of poor conduct by players including:

  • Loss of sponsorship support
  • Reduction in revenue through lost support of fans both via ticket and merchandise sales
  • Reduction in television exposure because unpopularity of a team leading to the broadcaster choosing to avoid games involving that team
  • In the worst case the loss of a premiership or lost games because players are unavailable or distracted.

No doubt mindful of these consequences, clubs and the administrators of sport have over time increased their oversight and involvement in the management of the behaviour of their contracted players.  Clubs and code administrators now have strict policies with respect to the conduct of their players that might lead to the club or code being brought into disrepute and undertake rigorous investigations into such conduct when it occurs.

Why then do issues of poor player behaviour continue to arise?  In the context of the steps that have been taken by the clubs to manage player behaviour and the potential consequences for the clubs and the players where a player acts in a manner that society deems inappropriate it seems that we are left with the answer that players are young men and young men sometimes get in trouble.

What then can be done?

Given that conclusion, can anything be done to deal with the problem of poor player behaviour?  Ultimately all that can be done is for players to take personal responsibility for their actions and to consider the consequences of their actions before acting. 

This sounds like a glib response to the question of player behaviour; however there is evidence to suggest that when players take responsibility for their own conduct the prospect of players being placed in situations where poor conduct occurs diminishes. 

A case in point is the identifiable change in the conduct of the Welsh Rugby Union team.   In the years prior to the World Cup the Welsh team was not without its own history of players acting inappropriately, with Mike Phillips and Gavin Henson among others being reported on various occasions to have conducted themselves in a questionable manner following a night on the town. However such embarrassing stories, such as Andy Powell’s golf Buggy debacle in 2010, have been absent in recent times thanks, it would appear, primarily to a voluntary squad ban on alcohol.

Whilst I do not advocate rugby players and sportsmen in general becoming teetotallers, the step taken by the Welsh team is indicative of the kind of personal responsibility that, when taken by players, can lead to an improvement in player behaviour.

This Southern Hemisphere rugby season will see another leap forward in the scrutiny of players and their behaviour, with more and more Internet and social media options covering the game and the players themselves allowing more access than ever to their fans via mediums such as twitter.  It will be interesting to see what awaits us in the context of player behaviour.  Until personal responsibility is made the focus of the response to poor player behaviour, the recent incidents will not be the last.


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