NRL in no-win situation over court cases

In 2015, NSW premier Mike Baird was so outraged by domestic violence allegations against Shaun Kenny-Dowall that he phoned NRL CEO Dave Smith and urged him to "show some leadership" by standing down the Sydney Roosters winger mid-season.

Weeks before the start of the 2016 season, and seven months after Baird had demanded Smith take immediate action, Kenny-Dowall was found not guilty of 11 charges following a three-day trial in Downing Centre Local Court.

The withdrawal of false domestic violence allegations against Hazem El Masri a few weeks later sparked another attack on the NRL for suspending the Canterbury great from ambassador roles with the game and club until he was exonerated.

"Instead of waiting for the law to decide, the NRL’s actions branded Hazem guilty in the court of public opinion," El Masri’s former wife, Arwa Abousamra, said.

Kenny-Dowall and El Masri are examples of the no-win situation the NRL faces when players are charged with serious offences, such as those faced by St George Illawarra forward Jack de Belin and former Parramatta star Jarryd Hayne.

The sexual assault allegations detailed against de Belin in Wollongong Court on Tuesday and Hayne in Newcastle Court on Wednesday are abhorrent and damaging to the game’s image, but both have pleaded not guilty.

Hayne does not have a contract for this season so the NRL does not have to consider action against him but de Belin will not be stood down until he gets the opportunity to plead his case in court.

Former Eels fullback Jarryd Hayne.
Former Eels fullback Jarryd Hayne. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

If de Belin was banned from playing and later found not guilty, the NSW forward may be able to argue he was denied the opportunity to earn $90,000 in this year’s State of Origin series and had also suffered reputational damage.   

It may not be a popular decision but most in the game can still remember the fall-out from the four-match suspension imposed on Manly fullback Brett Stewart at the start of the 2009 season after he was charged with sexual assault – only for a court to acquit him 18 months later.  

While the ban was officially for breaching the NRL code of conduct at a boozy Manly season launch, no other player was suspended and the decision caused a lingering ill will that spilled over when Stewart and his brother Glenn confronted NRL CEO David Gallop on stage after the Sea Eagles won the 2011 grand final.

The NRL does not have the capacity to investigate criminal matters and prefers to wait until they have been dealt with by the judicial system, which has prosecutors, judges, juries and other resources to help determine guilt.

This isn’t done by the police either, and their role is to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for a case to be forwarded to a court to consider.

In instances where a player admits guilt, such as the drink-driving charge against Greg Inglis last October, the NRL is able to take immediate action and he was denied the honour of captaining Australia after being banned from the two Tests against New Zealand and Tonga, as well as incurring a $20,000 fine.

Canberra Raiders fullback Jack Wighton.
Canberra Raiders fullback Jack Wighton. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

Canberra star Jack Wighton had been allowed to play last season after indicating he would plead not guilty to assault charges but he later changed his plea in court and the NRL handed him a season-ending 10-match ban and $30,000 fine.

It remains a possibility that Ben Barba will be charged by police over domestic violence allegations at a Townsville casino on Australian Day but the NRL and North Queensland were able to effectively put an end to his career after viewing video footage of the incident.

If an incident is on video, it is easier for the NRL to act and CCTV footage also enabled the NRL to slap a $25,000 fine on Canterbury forward Adam Elliott over his Mad Monday antics after being photographed dancing naked at a Sydney hotel.

The NRL won’t take action against de Belin now but if he is found guilty the 27-year-old can expect heavy sanctions and like Barba his time in the game is likely to be over. 

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.