Inside RL: Players in need of ‘further education’

Zak Hardaker.
Zak Hardaker.
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ARGUMENTS OVER the rights and wrongs of the Zak Hardaker case – and the merits of the RFL disciplinary system – will rumble on.

Hardaker was this week banned for five matches after admitting using “verbal abuse based on sexual preference” in the recent defeat at Warrington Wolves.

The offence he was charged with was graded E, the second most serious level and the range of possible punishment was from a four-match ban to eight.

Critics of Tuesday’s judgement, handed out by the disciplinary committee – which the RFL has now taken to describing as an “independent” panel – claim the punishment was far too lenient. The rest feel Hardaker has been a victim of political correctness.

The two groups, it has to be said, tend to be split – with some exceptions – into Leeds fans and supporters of other clubs. So what is the correct punishment for homophobic abuse?

Nobody actually knows, as it’s thankfully a rare offence in rugby league, certainly in this country and there are few precedents. A few years ago, the then-Wakefield Trinity Wildcats player Tevita Leo-Latu was suspended for six matches for making a racial slur, so on that basis Hardaker has got a reasonable result.

The entire situation is embarrassing for Rhinos, who have a good track record in promoting an inclusive game and who have worked with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in the past.

It even made the national television news, so will probably have strengthened the incorrect and out-dated image many outside the game hold of the sport.

The five-match ban is longer than some players are getting for dangerous, arguably even career-threatening tackles, but the issue there is the length of those suspensions, not the one imposed on Hardaker.

Rugby league has a policy against discrimination of any sort and there’s no point having such a policy if it is not enforced. The RFL should be applauded for taking what is a strong stand and Rhinos have also handled the incident in typically honest fashion.

To his credit, Hardaker – who was represented at the hearing by a solicitor – admitted the offence and has accepted his ban, which is a long one in the context of a 27-match league season. According to the RFL’s account – backed up by Leeds coach Brian McDermott’s comments elsewhere in today’s Evening Post – the panel accepted he wasn’t homophobic, but did believe the remark had been aimed at match referee James Child. Had Hardaker simply sworn – and not used a particular term with homophobic connotations – it’s probable nothing would have come of it.

The RFL’s press release announcing the ban stated Hardaker had “claimed he was unaware of the connotations of his remarks”. That has drawn some derision, but suggests he made the comment as a type of playground abuse, rather than a deliberate homophobic jibe.

Anyway, such language is unacceptable and Hardaker has to take his medicine. While punishment is all well and good, prevention is better than cure. There’s no indication homophobia – or any other form of prejudice – is thriving or even present in rugby league, but television cameras now capture players’ every move and comment and it’s up to the RFL and clubs to educate their athletes so it is absolutely clear what sort of language is or is not acceptable, both on and off the field.

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