Off the Wall


When you look at the apparent membership of the Independent Commission - as reported in the Australian yesterday - you have to ask this question: why has it taken so long to deliver so little? At the outset of the hopelessly drawn out process to appoint the eight commissioners I urged that it not be totally run by business men and women.

That has certainly fallen on deaf ears, and the game is to be run by eight commissioners, seven of whom are or have been senior corporate executives. The exception is the former Balmain, Blues and Test star, Wayne Pearce, these days is a respected commentator on Fox Sports.

It would seem that no less than three former airline executives are on the commission, joined by an advertising executive, a retail businesswoman, and a couple of other executives from the private sector.

One assumes the recruitment firm hired to go through the exhaustive process of selecting commission members was well paid - it should hand half what it was paid back!

Rugby league is a business but it is not just a business.

It is a sport, the real heart and soul of which is not Channel Nine and not the big end of the corporate world. The future of rugby league in Australia does not just depend on television rights deals, or major corporate sponsorships.

It very much depends on its community base - on the thousands of junior clubs in urban, regional and rural areas alike, and on the thousands of volunteers who give of their time to train teams, do the chook raffles, man the hot dog stalls, and perform the many other voluntary roles that keep the game alive.

The insistence that no one currently connected with an NRL club in an official capacity could serve on the commission played into the hands of those who wanted a "business people only commission".

The most successful sports commission or controlling body in Australia today is the AFL Commission.

Its membership could not be more different from what rugby league is being served up with.

The AFL Commission includes no less than four former players or coaches. It includes a Family Court Judge a former union official, and two women, one of whom has a strong record in community organisations. It also includes one or two former senior AFL club officials.

In summary, it has business links, but not business dominance. Former players and officials hold half or just over half the commission positions.

Contrast that with the NRL independent commission!

No former club officials are included - apparently Jim Marsden, the Western Sydney lawyer who has strong rugby league and community links is not good enough, even though the ARL support him.

If "bias" is such a problem, why not have one or two officials, current or former, from clubs that were ARL aligned, and one or two from clubs that were Super League aligned? And a condition of their appointment is that they sever official club connections, as the AFL requires.

The whole process was hog tied from the beginning. No current club officials, no media people, and on it went.

We need a commission that won't just drive the next television agreement, or major sponsorship agreements. We need a commission that will re-build the game in the bush and the regions, and protect it from the threat the AFL, with all its money to waste, seriously presents.

On the surface the game looks in good shape - Origin, the NRL premiership, the Toyota Cup, the ratings.

But when you look at the grass roots of the game, it is under serious duress. And nowhere is that more evident that in regional cities and towns across the two league states.

Do I have confidence that the proposed commission members will have the background knowledge and experience to ensure that? No way!

The best administrators in my time were Ron McAuliffe, Ken Arthurson, and Tom Bellew. Ron was a publican and senator, Ken was a player, coach and club administrator, Tom was a widely respected industrial officer, and a referee. A diversity of backgrounds.

The game needs leadership that looks after the grass roots as much as, if not more than, the television companies and major sponsors, and its needs leadership with at least some empathy and experience with the games players, officials, and all levels.

The proposed commission membership simply does not guarantee that!