Those who want footballers treated like accused policemen or school teachers – stand them down with full pay until the courts decide – ignore the effective length of an NRL player’s career. Eighteen months out of an average six-year career is not the same as 18 months out of a 40-year career.
It follows that it is erroneous to adopt the AOC policy of ejecting any athlete charged with a serious offence. Olympic athletes are stood down for three weeks, not 18 months. Furthermore, they do not have any employment relationship with the AOC and no payment is involved.
If comparisons are to be made with other sports, the NRL’s main competitor for TV dollars and sponsorships – the AFL- is more relevant. It adopted the same policy with its two most recent cases of sexual assault.
The police are more risk-averse than ever. They are increasingly taking the NRL view that it’s safer to charge and let the courts decide.
The presumption of innocence, like other tenets of western democracies, is a tricky concept. There may not be any presumption of innocence by, say, the partners of de Belin’s Dragons teammates, after they read the harrowing account of the alleged sexual assault in the media. In other words, presumption of innocence does not mean absence of ongoing punishment to de Belin, his wife and his family.
It must also be considered how presumption of innocence collides with modern policing practices. The police are more risk-averse than ever. They are increasingly taking the NRL view that it’s safer to charge and let the courts decide. If a complainant brings a credible allegation of sexual assault to them, they will proceed with charges, particularly if the accused refuses to be interviewed. It does raise the issue of malicious prosecutions, although this is almost certainly not the case with de Belin. But the system is moving towards more charges, less stronger cases and more acquittals.
Maybe if the de Belin case happened at some club with entrenched misogynistic, antediluvian, circle-the-wagons views, I would have a different take. But I coached St George for six years and know their decent officials would have sound, yet guarded reasons for not standing de Belin down immediately he was charged.
Should the ARLC decide next week to suspend de Belin, it will open the code to accusations of inconsistency. The public or media will make comparisons with past and future incidents. When the AOC rejected swimmer Nick D’Arcy for the Bejing Olympics after he was charged with aggravated assault, the media raised the case of boxer Peter Wakefield, who competed at the Athens Olympics four years earlier. He had been charged with assault and was subsequently jailed for four years.
Consistency with actions on the field – referees, judiciary, bunker, concussion – represents the code’s biggest headache.
Should the NRL abandon its policy of waiting for the courts to decide, it will be departing from the last frontier of the game where it delivers consistency.
With 90 per cent of cases of sexual assault not reported to police, the system is stacked against women. And women playing rugby league is the only growth area of the sport. Mothers make the choice what sport their children play. And it’s true community expectations of the behaviour of footballers now approximates where the AOC was a decade ago.
The only answer is to wait until the judicial system finds the player guilty of serious assault and then the NRL must ban him for life.