Sobering lessons already for Smith
Proactive. The new NRL chief executive David Smith used the word so often during his press conference on Tuesday, you started to wonder if it was the name of a new sponsor. Or perhaps a type of peptide. New NRL, we are assured, is proactive. Old NRL was reactive, to use the word ringing in David Gallop's ears after he was handed his cardboard box.
This posture would be applied to the challenges the game had not yet met. The NRL would be proactive in improving stadiums, increasing crowds, growing revenue. The big picture ideas that were obscured during the years of internecine war and day-to-day crisis management.
Instead, Smith's first public demonstration of proactivity has been to - yep - react to a crisis. With his hands tied behind his back. Just as Gallop was so often hamstrung by the game's compromised ownership structure, diminished media rights deals, ravenous appetite for self-destruction and self-interested warlords.
NRL CEO David Smith talks to the media. Photo: Anthony Johnson
This time the NRL has been torn between its duty to let the Australian Crime Commission and Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigations run their course and its responsibility to a group of stakeholders who need no intravenous aid to increase their strength: the club
chiefs and respected figures, such as Phil Gould and Wayne Bennett, who have been vocal in their insistence that the NRL ''name names'' to clear the game's reputation. Presumably while knowing that Smith is handcuffed by confidentiality arrangements and ACC and ASADA procedures that prohibit full disclosure.
''They want us to confess to something but, like I say, I've been racking my head wondering what they want us to confess to,'' said Bennett, whose club was one of six mentioned in the ACC report. You can understand the frustration of the Newcastle coach, who is only weeks away from sending his team onto the field. Likewise Gould, who has been even more strident in his defence of the clubs against what he portrays as scurrilous, unsubstantiated attacks.
The clubs were more conciliatory after a briefing from ASADA on Tuesday. But their vocal demands for information Smith was in no position to provide have made life unnecessarily difficult for the new boss. As Gallop often found, the failure of the clubs to fall in behind the NRL fuels an atmosphere of mistrust and confusion. Indeed, it could be one reason clubs were not initially given more information about the ACC report.
At the same time, you suspect the NRL is still uncertain whether the rhetoric used by the politicians in releasing the ACC report is justified by its contents. Whether it truly believes the game's integrity is under attack from underworld crime.
If not, then surely the chief executives of the five sports who were given private briefings should have raised their concerns before the release. Not, as some suggest, allowed themselves to be hauled to Canberra to lend weight to a cause in which they do not believe.
Instead, since the release, the NRL and AFL have been sitting on the fence. They remain publicly staunch in their support for ASADA and the ACC, and emphatic about bolstering their integrity units to address the problems. Yet, simultaneously, they are equivocal about how deeply rooted the problems might be, either because they are confident their noses are clean, or because they fear the commercial damage that could be done by fanning the already roaring flames.
On Tuesday, Smith was again strident in his support for an investigation he said covered ''multiple clubs, multiple players''; yet also at pains to make it clear ''an absolute majority of our coaches and our playing staff do the right thing'' and to acknowledge the ''frustration of the clubs, the players and the fans''.
The AFL has relied on a record of strong management - albeit one damaged by mishandling of recent tanking and salary cap problems - to keep clubs on a tight leash. Essendon's decision to reveal it was being investigated, before the ACC report was released, has been beneficial. It has made the AFL look - yep - proactive, even allowing some to mischievously distance Essendon's problems from the report as a whole. As my colleague Roy Masters suggests, it is not unreasonable to wonder if the Bombers knew the ACC release was pending.
The NRL, as well intentioned as it might be, still seems to be grappling with the clubs rather than working with them. A sobering first lesson for Smith. You might think you are a real pro at being active. Rugby league can make you look like an amateur.