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MITCH Rein knows what people think of him.

He knows that just because he is an NRL player a large number of the general population have a pre-conceived notion of what it means to be an elite rugby league player, a sport in which people seemingly bash each other up for fun.

Add to this many years under the intense media microscope and some unfortunate off-field incidents, and most regular punters who aren’t fans of the game (and some who are) don’t exactly have the greatest impression of who rugby league players actually are.

But a program developed by St George Illawarra in conjunction with the University of Wollongong is not only opening the population’s eyes to the type of citizens playing in the NRL, it’s helping to make those who participate in the program better footballers.

“A lot of people have this idea that most footy players are just boneheads,” says Rein (pictured), now in his third year in the top grade. “Studying, it changes the way people think about you. Usually people have something in their minds about guys who play football. When they find out you’re studying it makes you feel a bit better about yourself. People are usually shocked to find out.”

The poster-boy for rugby league players seeking higher education is without doubt Corey Payne, who was earlier this year named the NSW Young Australian of the Year and is in the final year of his master’s of commerce degree at Sydney University. Payne’s portfolio of off-field achievements has grown to such a level that he retired from the NRL in January to pursue opportunities in the business world.

Very few people in society, let alone within the NRL, will reach those lofty standards but the upward trend of players engaged in education is a source of great pride at Rugby League Central.

The ARLC’s welfare and education program is all about equipping players with knowledge so they can best contribute to the game and their commuinities. University study is just one part of that, but an area that is growing in participation. In 2012, 108 NRL players were enrolled in university courses and that has risen to 120 this year. And in the under-20s competition, a further 15 players are enrolled to study this year, up to 75 from 60 in 2012.

At the University of Wollongong, senior lecturers noticed that with their training load, many players who began studying were finding it difficult to keep up. Last year they piloted the ‘Graduates of League’ program, which gives every player who wants to earn a degree a tutor and flexible class times to keep them on the right path towards higher education. With the help of the NRL, there are high hopes that this program will be rolled out at every club during the course of the year.
Already there have been results – footballers on average, earn one mark more than their regular male counterparts engaged in the same area of study.

Rein is currently studying a Bachelor of Commerce and is a textbook example of what the ‘Graduates of League’ program has done to help players make more of their lives away from football.

“I was already a year into it when the program started,” Rein says. “It was a bit hard studying and training full-time but when they started up the program they gave me the opportunity to come back [to university]. It’s given me a pathway, someone to talk to who might give me a bit of leniency in missing class or if I could change ‘tutes’.

“It can get overwhelming too with the amount of study you have to do with the amount of training you have to do as well. Having your own personal tutor makes it a lot easier to take some of the workload off as well.”

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