The reality is more nuanced than NRL players being blokey boofheads

As someone who has worked with the NRL as a gender adviser for over a decade the question I am almost guaranteed to get at a party is: “How do you persevere with those boofheads?”

It’s less a question about me, of course. It’s a statement about rugby league players. And, yes, there are stories in the media that reinforce the idea that guys who play NRL are all a pack of clowns who live to get on the grog, drop their strides and harass women.

One of the latest scandals to hit the news was the Bulldogs Mad Monday where some of them got a skinful, stripped off and started grabbing each other’s genitals. That display was followed up by some light vomiting in the street. All, of course, caught on camera.

In another recent incident it is alleged that Rabbitohs players exposed themselves to a woman during a video chat. The details of the nature of the chat and how the photos came to circulate will be investigated by the NRL integrity unit.

The reality however is far more nuanced than the picture portrayed in the tabloids. Certainly, a minority of players do the wrong thing – and over the years some have been involved in assaulting women. None of which is defensible and in the case of violence against women absolutely abhorrent.

The story that doesn’t get told – because it cuts against the stereotypes about working class blokes – is that the NRL has poured more resources into research and education about off-field behaviour than any other sport in Australia. We have extensive and evidence-based education programs covering respectful relationships, alcohol and drug use, social media use, mental health and career transition.

I am now leading the third research project conducted since 2004 which takes the temperature of the culture across the game. I am working with two leading experts in gambling and drug and alcohol use to survey players and others working in the NRL culture and benchmark what we find against broader community behaviour.

We have excellent benchmarks from two earlier anonymous surveys on player behaviour – and believe me, they were extremely honest in those. Why would they be honest? Because the majority of guys playing League are appalled and angry by the way the behaviour of a few tarnishes a whole code.

One of the issues is that when guys who are already perceived as “education proof” do the wrong thing, it is seen as confirmation that they’ll never change. That it’s futile to try. This wrong-headed belief is, I think, grounded in class prejudice. A guy in a suit at a corporate function once even asked me: “Why do you even try with these animals?”

Yet what do we know about where some of the worst behaviour towards women is happening today? Actually, it’s in elite university colleges. Elizabeth Broderick has just an authoritative report on one – St Paul’s College at Sydney University – a college attended by many of our political and business elite.

Students at St Paul’s – who are presumably not “education proof” – have been found in the report to have engaged in such quaint traditions as: making people eat sheep’s hearts at initiation ceremonies, celebrating sporting wins by taking girls to a “boning room” lined with mattresses, and chanting sexist slogans over a fire pit on valedictory night.

All of the above is not a blip on the historical radar. There has been ample evidence of a troubling and deeply sexist culture at the College for decades – although clearly not all of the men who attend Paul’s are part of that.

A minority of men right across society engage in male “bonding” rituals which often involve harassing if not assaulting women and drinking to excess. And we now have good evidence about how to change those cultures – it involves a long-term commitment to education, strong penalties and ongoing research to monitor change.

Class background and education are not predictors of the treatment of women. Meanwhile at the allegedly “education proof” NRL, nearly a quarter of players are undertaking university degrees and a further 40% are engaged in vocational education and training. It’s a statistic which belies the image of blokey boofheads who are only interested in scoring tries and women.

This article was first published in The Guardian