User:Rhys.Redfearn/Judicial Politics in Australian Rugby League
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The judicial system in professional Australian rugby league has an extensive history, and has had many different forms since its inception. The judiciary seen today in the professional Australian rugby league competition, the National Rugby League (NRL), is a diverse and dynamic body. The judiciary is the head group in charge regarding on field issues involving players and officials.
The NRL Judiciary has a main role within the operations of the NRL. The judiciary deliberates over on field discretions committed by players and officials. As seen in the link, the judiciary states all of the guidelines regarding penalties and judicial proceedings.
But the judiciary is so much more than just this. The judiciary holds much power in the world of professional rugby league. It can hold a player’s future in its hands, it can be a mediator of disputes and it can be the ‘theatre’ where cases between parties can be discoursed and deliberated to much fanfare and drama.
Today’s judiciary in Australian rugby league is far different from its past formation. It has its supporters and its critics. The judiciary now has much more responsibility to handle. Its word in most cases is final. The judiciary’s influence and the influence on itself is a major aspect of Australian rugby league and all it comprises of. The business and politics of rugby league is closely related to judicial proceedings, and this relationship is one that is never really discussed openly. This essay wishes to explore that relationship.
Judicial Background and Structure
The National Rugby League (NRL) is Australia's premier rugby league competition. The NRL judiciary is the chief body regarding judicial issues in the sport of rugby league. The judiciary is a panel of experts who deliberate over the match review committee’s charges against players, officials, staff and teams/clubs. The NRL judiciary in its current form has been in operation since the rival ‘Super League’ competition was completed in 1997, and merged with the Australian Rugby League (ARL) competition in 1998, to create the NRL.
The NRL judiciary is the next step past the match review committee. As mentioned, the MRC will decide on the category of the charge and the grade. The judiciary has a demerit point system already in place which coincides with the MRC’s verdict. The NRL judiciary assigns demerit points to each charge and grade. For example, the MRC finds that a player is guilty of a ‘Grade 3 Dangerous Throw’ charge. This charge has the penalty of 525 demerit points against the player charged, as determined by the judiciary. When the player receives the charge, he may either plead guilty and accept the penalty, or may enter a ‘not guilty’ plea and contest the charge in front of the judiciary. A rare third option may be enforced by the player, in which he can plead guilty to the charge, but contest the grading, i.e. reduce the penalty associated, but the first two pleas are most common.
The following is an excerpt taken from the NRL’s website regarding judicial procedure:
"To ensure consistency and fairness in penalties awarded by the NRL Judiciary, penalties are awarded according to a pre-determined points system. Each 100 points received by a player will result in a one match suspension. For example, a penalty of 275 points will result in a player receiving a two-match suspension, with the remaining 75 points staying on the player’s record for 12 calendar months as ‘carry-over points’.
Following the end of each round, clubs and media are advised of details of charges laid by the Match Review Committee. Clubs have until noon on the following day to enter a plea on charges. If the club and player plead guilty, no judiciary hearing is necessary. If the player and his club plead not guilty or ask that the ‘grading’ of the charge be downgraded, he will be required to put his case to the judiciary."
(NRL.com, Reference Centre – Judiciary, 2011)
Dramatics and Influence
The Adam Blair and Glenn Stewart case highlights what the judiciary can encompass. Fanfare and drama with much riding on the line. This case showed the theatrics of the judicial procedure due to the magnitude of the case itself and the reactions to the outcome.
“There was plenty at stake for all involved - Manly and Melbourne keen to keep their premiership campaigns on track and the NRL desperate for a harsh enough penalty to show all the mums and dads out there that violence of this nature would not be tolerated.
The NRL judiciary had not had a night like this since retired superstar Andrew Johns was banned for two games for abusing a touch judge back in 2006, or when Storm skipper Cameron Smith was rubbed out of the 2008 grand final.
But through it all, Blair appeared calm, even as the judiciary panel was subjected to seven different replays of an incident that has barely been off the screens from the moment it occurred. The bravado gave way to dejection as the verdict was handed down. It wasn't the five to seven weeks the NRL counsel wanted, but the three matches on top of the two-game ban was enough to end his days with the Storm.
Then through all the build up and angst came a relatively calm ending, Manly pleading for more time to rebuild their case.
They were granted their 24 hours, but whether it is enough to save Stewart's season is another matter."
(NRL.com, Fighting stars poles part at NRL judiciary, August 31st 2011)
The judiciary can be much more than a place of deliberation and hearing. This particular case had enormous repercussions for both players and their teams. The brawl incident was on the eve of the finals series, with Manly and Melbourne the top two teams in contention for spots in the grand final. With emotions running high, this case was of the highest importance for the NRL.
The judiciary hearings for both players though could not be any more different. Public view was that Blair was not the instigator of the brawl, yet he was served with a five match ban. Stewart on the other hand, seen as the main perpetrator was given another 24 hours to prepare his case after claiming his counsel was not prepared. Amazingly, the judiciary agreed. This outcome caused much controversy for the judiciary, being accused of double standards and coercion. The judiciary stuck by its decision, but the media and rugby league public became involved in very heated debates over judicial proceedings.
Mal Meninga V Judiciary
Mal Meninga's rant during the 2011 State of Origin series was unprecedented for a high ranking coach or official. Meninga felt that his whole State of Origin campaign was being undermined by his New South Wales rivals, and in particular judiciary officials who had suspended Queensland forward David Taylor for five matches for a dangerous tackle in a club match, ruling him out of the remainder of the series.
The case involving Mal Meninga and the judiciary was never before seen in Australian rugby league. Meninga’s ‘rant’ was a blatant attack on the judiciary. He criticised not only its panel members, but accused the judiciary of working with New South Wales rugby league, to undermine Queensland’s chances of winning a record six straight State of Origin series.
“And unlike the case in which judiciary panel members sued Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy and chief executive Brian Waldron for defamation over comments they made after Cameron Smith was banned from the 2008 grand final, Greg McCallum, Peter Louis and Bradley Clyde have the full backing of the NRL. It is believed the judiciary panel members involved in the legal action against the officials from the News Ltd-owned Storm each received $45,000 in an out-of-court settlement.”
(Brisbane Times, Judiciary trio to sue unless Meninga apologises, July 13th 2011)
The Melbourne Storm and its officials had already set a precedent back in 2008 when their club accused the judiciary of favouring the other grand finalists Manly-Warringah by suspending Storm captain Cameron Smith and excluding him from the grand final. However, that time around, when the judiciary members decided to take legal action over the Storm comments, the governing body, the NRL did not support the members’ actions and advised against. The members did go through with the action and the case was settled out of court.
So why did the NRL change its stance when ‘going after’ Mal Meninga? It was based on politics.
The Queensland V NSW rivalry is always at its most volatile and strongest around Origin time. No matter if it is on or off the field, there is passion and hatred for one another. With the NRL and the judiciary being based in NSW, Meninga alone saw this as a chance to substantiate his argument against the judiciary and its members.
The battle for state supremacy is a never ending one between NSW and QLD, no matter the sport. It is intensified however in the sport of rugby league because of the State of Origin concept. State of Origin is billed as ‘state versus state, mate versus mate’.
That tagline is usually reserved for the players but in this instance the Origin rivalry went further than the players.
Not only did Mal Meninga and the judiciary members become involved in a scandal, the governing body of the sport, which would normally distance themselves from such an event, got firstly involved, but then also took sides and backed the judicial members in their attempts to force legal action. As mentioned before, this was an unprecedented move by the NRL, as the last time they were faced with such a decision, they distanced themselves from proceedings.
The NRL has significant interest in such matters when they arise, due to the judiciary members representing the NRL as an organisation, but the judicial members themselves are independent from the NRL, i.e. they do not work for the NRL; the judiciary is impartial has no conflict of interest in judicial matters. Conflict of interest for both the NRL and the judicial members occurred when the NRL stepped in and declared they would support the judiciary.
The NRL wanted to state that it is the governing body, and it would not be pushed around by one person. In doing so, the NRL brought politics into the argument by siding with the judiciary and promoting its own agenda.
In the end, Meninga apologised off the record and the judiciary members dropped their legal case. This type of occurrence shows that the judiciary has a lot of influence in the operations of the NRL, as well as showing how easily a reasonably straight forward matter can turn into a real episode.
Judiciary and Business
Jeff Wall's article discusses the recent controversy around judicial proceedings, and in this particular case, the politics behind the judiciary's decision regarding Brisbane Broncos' player Sam Thaiday as well as its effects on the NRL as a business.
"The current process does not have flexibility - the judiciary cannot mitigate a penalty when it involves a suspension from an origin match, a semi final, or a grand final.
It ought to be able to determine the penalty on the basis of the impact it will have.
The best way to achieve that is to allow a player, and his club, to have the judiciary decide the case on its merits...on the evidence put before it, and tested by counsel representing the NRL and the player.
There is a risk in that for a player - the judiciary might decide on a higher penalty.
I thought the Thaiday dangerous throw was in the "middle range". But that is just one opinion. The review panel clearly views it as more serious than that.
Let the "independent judiciary" decide the penalty, if any, based on the totality of the evidence put before them."
(League Unlimited, Off the Wall, September 5 2011)
The current judicial process in the NRL has come under much scrutiny since its inception in 1998. Previously, a case put to the judiciary was assessed before the judicial panel. There was no involvement with a match review committee, because one did not exist. Each case was heard and then an outcome was derived, much like being involved in a court process.
Since the MRC was introduced, the judiciary has taken on a different form. Rather than a place where parties can deliberate a case, the judiciary is now the outlet if a charge is sought to be downgraded or removed altogether. The MRC takes away the opportunity to plead a case.
This is where the business side of rugby league has a stake.
With the current judicial system in place, the argument currently stands at is the judicial system a fair and unbiased structure, and does it facilitate good business?
As aforementioned, the pre 1998 judicial system was much like a court process. It was lengthy, arduous and expensive, but it was seen to be the fairest and most unbiased way of deliberating over such cases, because of the time and effort put into presiding over a case.
With the introduction of the MRC in 1998, the judicial process is much more straightforward. Cases can be heard over a shorter period of time, with little need for deliberation because of the MRC preparing the details to be discussed before the matter reaches the judiciary.
What is good for business can entail a few aspects in regards to rugby league. Does the current system have to ability to assist players and officials in making the judicial process easier to understand and follow? Does the simplified system save resources which can be used in other areas? Does the judiciary positively reflect to the public that the course of justice has been followed stringently?
Jeff Wall asks for leniency and understanding from the judiciary when presiding over a case in his article, especially when the player involved could be excluded from a significant match.
But is not that then showing bias and being unfair towards the player and the business by having a conflict of interest and taking into consideration outside factors that may not relate to the case at hand, everything which the current judicial system is not?
The major reason why the pre 1998 system needed to be changed was because of the many variables that could influence a case. By having such a complex system, things became ‘lost in the shuffle’. Post 1998, the NRL decided to eliminate these variables by introducing the MRC, and having an independent judiciary. This is not to say the original judiciary was not effective in its operations. However, the current system alleviates the concern over whether the course of justice could be wayward or manipulated when a case is heard. It is simple in its approach, and is a true representation of how a sporting tribunal operates.
Professional Australian rugby league is a powerhouse sport in the context of the national sporting landscape. The judiciary is seen as a cornerstone of the sport, being the mediator and acting as the body to end disputes and aid communication. The influence it has over the sport and all its aspects and its relationship to the business and politics of rugby league makes for a multifaceted and complex relationship to say the least. Judicial politics and its effects on sport and business has the power to change the landscape of a sport, and in Australian rugby league, the judiciary has such close ties to the NRL, yet is an independent body. It is an intricate situation, yet the judiciary is determined to serve the sport to the best of its ability, and will continue to do so into the future.
Jancetic, S. (31 Aug 2011). Fighting stars poles part at NRL judiciary. NRL.com.
NRL.com, SportsData & NRLStats (n.d.).NRL Judiciary - Reference Centre. NRL.com.
Wall, J. (5 Sept 2011). Off The Wall. League Unlimited.
Walter, B. (13 July 2011). Judiciary trio to sue unless Meninga apologises. Brisbane Times.
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Super League War. Wikipedia.org.