The price of winning at all costs

james-roberts

It’s late January of a new sporting year and it wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t kick it off with a few integrity scandals.

First off we had the shocking revelations that Victorian Police had charged up and coming Australian teenage tennis sensation Oliver Anderson with match fixing (Click here to read the story)

And now over the past week we have had three integrity scandals rock the NRL as they look to start off the 2017 season in better shape than last year following the now infamous Mitchell Pearce incident.

First off was reports that serial bad boy James Roberts of the Brisbane Broncos has been accused of man-handling a young woman at a nightclub by grabbing her hair forcefully.

Then we heard that veteran Newcastle Knights playmaker Jarrod Mullen has tested positive for steroids. This then followed with revelations that Wests Tigers player Kyle Lovett was charged with drug possession back on 23rd December only for him to inform the club in the new year.

For this article, I am not going to delve too much into Jarrod Mullen’s issue except to say that if its true that he took a performance enhancing steroid without a valid reason and approved clearance (due to a medical condition etc) well, then he is just plain stupid.

He will face the consequences of what are some pretty strict guidelines around professional athletes being caught in breach of anti-doping codes. Both the Knights and the NRL’s hands will be somewhat tied in regards to the penalty that is meeted out to Mullen due to their Australian and international obligations under anti-doping codes.

The Kyle Lovett issue is a simple yet familiar issue – another professional athlete charged with possession of an illicit drug. It is not clear exactly what drug Lovett had in his possession and that matter needs to play out before the courts. This is a disappointing incident for the Wests Tigers who are very focused on building the right culture under current CEO Justin Pascoe. I know from first hand experience the quality of Justin Pascoe as an individual and leader and what he and his team are trying to achieve at the Tigers.

I am sure that this issue has rocked them to the core. We will have to see how this one plays out in the court system, and if Lovett is convicted what punishment is handed out by the NRL and Wests Tigers.

But let’s get back to James Roberts for a minute. And before we go into too much detail let me start off by saying: Yes, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Yes he may be innocent and yes, he should be afforded procedural fairness.

He might also be the victim of a frivolous and vexatious complaint. With the emphasis on the words “might be”.

Now that I have got that out of the way let’s get down to brass tax. Here is a guy who at a relatively young age (23 yrs old) has had a raft of off field issues during his relatively short time in the NRL. Let’s take a quick look at some of the issues that we know about:

  • fined $20,000 early in 2016 for allegedly abusing a female staff member at a Brisbane pub
  • Involved in a number of contractural breaches whilst at South Sydney leading to him being released in 2012
  • After leaving Souths, Roberts was released by the Panthers following a number of off-field issues including smashing a taxi on a night out in 2014

For a young guy with a promising career that’s a lot of issues and as I said, they are the ones we know of. If I was a betting man I would be brave enough to suggest there are probably others that we don’t know about that have been managed quietly and kept off the radar.

We could keep talking about this issue and his previous indiscretions but that’s not really the big issue here. It’s not the point of my story. For me, the real issue here is that despite repeated issues and poor off-field behaviour this guy keeps getting another chance. And another chance.

One has to wonder – is he getting these chances because the NRL and their clubs feel they owe it to their players to stick by them, be understanding that they are young and that we all make mistakes and that we all deserve a second, maybe a third chance? No doubt.

The NRL takes the welfare of their players seriously and continues to ramp up its investment in education and welfare for all of the players. And on a human level, we all deserve second chances when we make mistakes.

But when it gets past the second or third chance, with the player in question making similar if not exactly the same mistakes, one has to wonder why teams are still willing to take a chance on a serial offender?

Why are they willing to expose their organisation to negative media attention, undermine their on field performance and damage the team culture that they work so hard to achieve given the impact these integrity issues can cause?

Why? Because he is a very good player that’s why. He is one of the Bronco’s top players and their leading player at his position. And therein lies the problem.

If James Roberts was some rank outsider, struggling to play first grade week in and week out I doubt we would see him given multiple chances at one club, never mind numerous chances at multiple clubs. But he isn’t some rank outsider. He is one of the Broncos starting centres and one of the better centres in the league.

None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, even more mistakes when we are young, impressionable and learning how to exist in a complex world. Add to that being a professional athlete in the public eye and we make even more mistakes. I get it.

And for the record,  I’m all for people being given a second, third and maybe even a fourth chance but at some point the chances have to run out and people need to be cut loose. To be taught a lesson. Made an example of. Especially if you are making the same mistakes, which for James Roberts seem to revolve around his drinking and choices of establishments.

Why? Because if you aren’t prepared to place your organisations values, policies, people and culture above winning, then ultimately you are going to lose. Sure you might have some sustained on-field success but for how long, and at what cost? Eventually you will lose. Lose on the field. Lose quality players. Lose sponsors and lose supporters.

Providing chance after chance for the premier players makes a mockery of the game’s Code of Conducts, other integrity policies and the investment that goes into education and welfare across the league. It’s even worse when those same chances aren’t afforded to lesser talented or relative unknown players.

Roberts however is just one of many examples where NRL clubs, and the NRL HQ to a certain extent by registering these contracts, continue to place a premium on their on-field performance and results over more important aspects such as league and team culture, the reputation of the clubs and competition as a whole, fan engagement and respect for the millions of dollars of corporate sponsorship support that flow into the NRL.

Isn’t it about time that the league as a collective, and the teams themselves started taking a stand from a reputation and culture perspective and parting ways with these serial offenders for good? How many chances do the Roberts, Carney’s, Barba’s and others need and at what cost to their team, supporters and the rest of the league?

Sure, early on those particular teams who take a tough stance might take a short set back in on field performance, particularly if one of those serial offenders is one of their star players (Ben Barba anyone?) and sure, this will probably translate into a short term loss commercially in relation to ticket sales, merchandise sales and potentially sponsorship dollars.

But that is very short sighted. What about the long term benefits?

I’m longing to see an NRL club take a stand from a values perspective and draw a line in the sand that says enough is enough – if you want to assault women, take illicit drugs, get involved in pub fights, drink drive then you don’t have a place in this club, regardless of who you are.

If you are Jonathan Thurston or Cameron Smith – don’t care – you’re gone. If you are Joe Bloggs that no one has ever heard of – same result, you’re gone.

Imagine a club that decides to take a stand by setting a high standard around on and off-field behaviour and actually follows through? A standard where the club CEO makes it very clear what those expectations are and more importantly what the consequences are if you breach those standards? Where your contract will be terminated and you wont be welcome at the club, regardless of how talented you are.

Imagine the message it would send to the players and employees of that club, their sponsors and supporters and the league as a whole?

Within a few short years you would see a dramatic uplift in behaviour by all players contracted to that club. Each of those players would hold each other accountable to the high standards by which they are operating day in and day out.

The fans of the team would be more engaged, and even more passionate, safe in the knowledge that their players are giving it their all, are all on the same page and have a tight knit group. That their hard earned money spent supporting their team is respected.

Corporate sponsors would start proactively making inquiries about partnering with this club, safe in the knowledge that their sponsoirpship dollars are not likely to be tarnished by off-field issues and dragged through the back pages of the sport section.

Players from across the league who are serious about winning, serious about their performance and serious about their off-field commercial opportunities both now and post-career would be lining up to join this team.

Junior players coming through the ranks would have exemplorary behaviour as they would be under no illusion that anything less would result in them not being offered a senior contract.

This team would have created a competitive advantage over the rest of their peers – all by focusing on culture, behaviour and standards first, and winning second.

I know this sounds radical but in reality its not. And you know what? I’m willing to bet that this strategy would pay off long term in on-field performance too.

I think it’s about time a brave CEO, with support from their Board, took a stand and departed from the norm. No more making excuses, flying offenders off to Thailand for a paid holiday (sorry, rehab) and returning them back to the same environment, same standards and same ‘good’ support crew but hoping for a different outcome.

In corporate circles, companies are ridiculed by the media and public, and depending on the industry hammered by investors or regulators when they let poor behaviour go unchecked the expense of results. And for good reason. As a result, corporate Australia is getting much better at dealing with integrity scandals and making it difficult for rogues to exist, never mind prosper.

At its core, the small percentage of bad boys across the NRL continue to be bad boys because they know they will be given a third, fourth and fifth chance. They know that they can get another contract registered.

All they need to do is ask for a release, go to a rehab facility offshore and wait for it to die down before another club is willing to take a punt on them, and NRL HQ will register their contract. Worst case they depart Australia for a few short years, earn millions in cashed up overseas leagues and return to resume their career.

And this small percentage of bad apples are the ones spoiling it for the rest of the league.

It’s time to place a higher premium on behaviour, culture and engagement and have faith that it will result in a much better organisation, team and the ultimate goal for any NRL team – a premiership.

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