Country rugby league: Some grounds are like time warps for bad behaviour

FALLOUT: A Group 4 touch judge told me last year he would quit because of crowd abuse. He spoke a day after being relentlessly abused at a match at Bendemeer.
FALLOUT: A Group 4 touch judge told me last year he would quit because of crowd abuse. He spoke a day after being relentlessly abused at a match at Bendemeer.

The transformation of workplace environments since the mid-1980s, when I started my career, has mirrored society in general – the open sexism, homophobia, racism and bullying lanced like a boil.

Have these malignant throwbacks been removed completely? Of course not. Will they be? No, never. Are some workplaces worse than others in terms of this behaviour? Certainly. Have we, as a society, gone too far in policing behaviour deemed anti-PC? Sure we have. We're human: over-correction is in our nature.

But we don't want to go back in time. We don't want our workplaces and our society at large to resemble one of the few remaining problem areas – a miasmic punch where sins of the past are spewed from all variety of mouths: young and old, male and female, the solo offender and the rabid group.

As sure as players will run on to country rugby league fields around regional Australia in the coming months and be held accountable for acts not aligned with the game's evolution, there will be people in the crowd – the wanton minority – who will act in a manner out of step with society's evolution, and, in the vast majority of cases, get away with it.

DEAF: Calls for crowds to behave at country rugby league grounds often have little effect.

DEAF: Calls for crowds to behave at country rugby league grounds often have little effect.

Most of the players don't get paid. And a touch judge told me last year he didn't get paid enough. He spoke a day after being subjected to non-stop abuse, some of it highly personal, at a Group 4 match at Bendemeer. Similar to the great Panamanian ex-boxer Roberto Duran infamously uttering "no mas [no more]" in his corner between rounds after being battered by Sugar Ray Leonard, the touch judge had had enough – 2017 would be his last season running the line, he stressed.

I recently heard a woman shout, “I hope you break your leg, No.11.” Her group of fellow young female supporters, who had spent the match jeering, rebuked her, and then immediately recommenced the foul offensive they no doubt learned as children from adults.

At another game – where the ground announcement urging the crowd to act with decorum had as much effect as injecting a virus with a placebo – my daughter was brought to tears by the abuse she and her younger brother received from a group of children. Such ground announcements are the norm at country rugby league games, in the bid to connect the sport to the generational change washing over Australian culture like a colon cleanser. 

STOP IT: Why do people think it is acceptable to abuse match officials and players? Most abusers wouldn't act like that elsewhere.

STOP IT: Why do people think it is acceptable to abuse match officials and players? Most abusers wouldn't act like that elsewhere.

In June last year, Group 4 lamented a crowd abuse incident that resulted in the Kootingal-Moonbi and Barraba game at Kootingal being abandoned, with then Group 4 president Mick Schmiedel warning that life bans from all Country Rugby League games had been imposed on unruly spectators in the past. “We don’t want people abusing players, let alone match officials, irrespective of the reason,” he had said. “Every single person on that field – players and match officials – is trying to do their best.”

He added: “We’re trying hard to clean up the game, and people have to understand that they have to help us clean the game up … if people turn up to games and there’s abuse, we’re not going to get people to games.”

This year, both Group 4 and Group 3 revealed that they had a severe referee shortage. In recent years, Group 10, Group 19 and Group 21 have also experienced the problem.

“Every single person on that field – players and match officials – is trying to do their best.”

“Every single person on that field – players and match officials – is trying to do their best.”

While there are multiple factors causing this, crowd abuse would be among them. Because to enter some country rugby league grounds is like being reintroduced to my childhood in 1970-80s Central Queensland, the only difference being that I no longer hear people screaming, "Hit the black c***." Compare that malign contemporary environment to contemporary Australian culture and the effect is almost as jarring as that vile racial slur.