Big brain essay #5: Do these guys actually know what they’re doing?

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

I occassionally get the urge to write a grand unifying theory of rugby league. Indeed, that’s where many of these essays started. I usually get stuck somewhere between the scale of it and the intractable psychology and never finish it. Sometimes, some good comes of it, like Super League 2.0 is not coming, but this is probably not one of those times.

In principle, this theory would establish some of the ideas that give the game its legitimacy and purpose as a cultural institution but also ideas that we could use to make decisions in a meaningful and ideologically consistent way and offer future directions that the sport might take. Religions have a mythology that explain things. Even heartless corporations have policy documents that no one reads but boardrooms use to make decisions. Rugby league desperately needs a plan to survive.

What’s more is that ideas are free. People get paid to think of them as part of their job description. We haven’t gotten to a point where we need to worry about where the money to implement the plans is going to come from, because there’s no plan in the first instance.

My fundamental view is that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. In the globalised, hyper competitive world in which we live, if rugby league is not aggressively seeking new audiences, then other, better funded and more well known sporting organisations will come and eat rugby league’s lunch.

Almost all of the space that can be occupied by sport is already occupied in the industrialised world. Rugby league can only expand by displacing existing sports – something that hasn’t really happened since WWII – or to grow the overall pie and take a small slice at the edge – as the Wolfpack had hoped to do in Toronto. That the Wolfpack was a Big Deal for rugby league, $30 million pissed down the toilet, is indicative of the dire straits in which we find ourselves. The Blue Jays spent more on Tanner Roark and Hyun Jin Ryu in 2020.

Without this masterplan for the sport, the sport is ruderless. I think this explains a large part of why “rugby league never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Rugby league people don’t really understand their own sport, certainly not in terms they could articulate, and don’t spend a lot of time considering purpose and meaning. Things just are. When opportunity arrives, the powers that be literally don’t know what to do*. They can’t even work out whether rugby league should be a vehicle for redemption or not.

If you need a historical example of this, consider that state of origin selection rules had been proposed as early as 1964 to imbue the interstate series with meaning and competitiveness. It was only in 1980 that it was first trialled and then broadly accepted by 1982 and really only became a big enough deal for Sydneysiders to attend in decent numbers circa 1985. This is because rugby league administrators didn’t understand what they had and could not see where it could go. State of Origin, the most commercially successful exponent of the game, was an accident.

No doubt there’s a cavalcade of people who reject the very notion that rugby league should be anything other than it is now. That’s because there’s lots of people who will complain about any change and trace their intellectual lineage back to Socrates, who had a whinge about people writing things down to remember and communicate them.

People will take issue with my suggestions, for the reasons I’ve covered and for their own, a lot of which will be reasonable. Some will simply hate the lack of symmetry and the messiness of it all. Far be it for me to tell you this is how it has to be. Honestly, it doesn’t matter because none of it will come to pass. These essays will not suddenly overturn 125 years of non-thinking.

Rugby league seemingly has nothing to offer other than to perpetuate its own existence. At least rugby union believes it is inherently superior. Give them another twenty years of selective pressure from broadcast negotiations and professionalism and they’ll probably be playing something that looks a lot like league.

I’ve ventured to suggest that rugby league’s philosophy includes elements of inclusiveness, meritocracy, identity and mass entertainment (which are hardly original insights, thanks to Tony Collins) but very few fans would even acknowledge that a philosophy exists, let alone agree what it is. Almost all fans exist because of some combination of they were born into it, the sport is fun to watch and rugby league happens to be the medium by which the local pissing contest takes place.

If horse racing is the sport of kings and soccer is the beautiful game, then by the laws of cliche, rugby league is the working man’s game. Except this working man has no sense of class solidarity, no idea of how to build anything and no means by which to do it.

And this working man isn’t really a working man anyway because that working man is a relic that died at least forty years ago.

And we’d probably be better off targetting the working woman. Should rugby league be a girl’s game? Who can say.

Rugby league will continue hand-to-mouth, financially and spiritually, until we finally reach the blessed relief of surrendering to our union counterparts, unable to distinguish ourselves from our former masters in a world that does not value our history or potential because we simply cannot be bothered.

*That is, perhaps except to fall back on tradition, which has embedded a long running culture of reactive conservatism: a borderline psychotic will to maintain the status quo until it is untenable to do so, then making the most minimal changes possible to resolve the crisis at hand. It’s worth noting that this is not a uniquely rugby league problem and many sports have this in common.