sports

"I did the NRL's Voice Against Violence training. Here's what I learned."

I’m in a bar at the Cronulla Sharks’ NRL team HQ in southern Sydney. It’s a rainy, wintry Monday night, the carpet is slightly sticky, and there’s a lingering stale-beer scent in the air.

A red-headed man with beautiful energy and a broken nose is talking to a group of boys.

“If you are violent against women,” he’s telling them, as they shuffle from foot to foot, “you don’t belong in our game.”

All of these boys desperately want to belong in the game. They are junior players from two local League clubs, fit as hell in their training gear, gagging to get out on the field. They live to play for their teams on the weekend. Their heroes’ faces are blown up on the walls of this place, representing the lives they want to live. And in 2019, if you want that life, you need to do this training.

The man talking to them is Alan Tongue. “Tonguey” is a legend. He played for the Canberra Raiders for 13 years, winning two Dally M positional awards, an exemplary player of discipline on-field and off. Since he retired in 2011, mentoring is his passion, and he’s part of a team that travels across the country, into professional clubs and regional towns and indigenous communities and places like “Sharkies” to put players and wannabe players through the Voice Against Violence training, passionate in his belief that if Rugby League is going to truly shake off its toxic issues of violence and sexual violence against women, it has to start here, with the boys.

Watch Alan Tongue take some young players through the Voice Against Violence training (post continues after video): 

“It’s a huge opportunity,” he tells me. “I thought about my old [playing] life around men and how when you come to a new football club, you have to buy in to the culture, or you get spat out quite quickly. So we need to change the culture, and I’m optimistic that the culture will shift, don’t you worry about that.”

Not everyone is so convinced, but this season, the shoots of change have begun to show green. Back in February, the NRL CEO, Todd Greenberg made a much-discussed change to the code, declaring that any players who had been charged with violence against women would be benched until the verdict was in on their guilt or innocence. This change has been challenged, legally and culturally, by players who are protesting that they should be afforded the same presumption of innocence as anyone else, and allowed to play until that’s proven otherwise.

ADVERTISEMENT

Read: The 11 questions Australian women want to ask the boss of the NRL – answered.

St George-Illawarra Dragons player, Jack De Belin has been the poster-boy, the test-case, for pushing back against Greenberg’s “tough” stance. He’s facing serious charges of rape and assault related to an incident that occurred in the NRL’s so-called “horror” off-season of Dec 2018-Jan 2019, and he has spent the season furiously petitioning to be allowed to take the field until his day in court. But Greenberg, who can read the impatient public mood and the disquiet of sponsors at the seemingly never-ending parade of despicable accusations against some of his employees, insists that a “hard line” is the only way to change behaviour, and many in League agree.

Tonguey’s one of them. “We probably hit rock bottom at the end of last year,” he says. “And we needed to have a good look at ourselves. I talk all the time to people in other codes about what they’re doing and we’re streets ahead of them, but we need to do more. It comes from more education and more accountability.”

Junior League players are taken through their paces at the Cronulla Sharks' club for Voice Against Violence training.

And so we’re here, back in  Sharkies' bar, and the young men are being put through rugby league drills, familiar to any of these boys, but spun to spread the message Tonguey believes will make the difference in the years and seasons and superstars to come. He suggests we might have let a generation slip in a hazy mess of sexting videos and boozy breakdowns, but the focus needs to be ahead, on leaders coming through.

ADVERTISEMENT

The zero tolerance to disrespecting women needs to come not only from the top, he says, but from their peers. The thing that will really make a difference, Tonguey’s explaining, is the behaviour you tolerate in your mate.

“We were working with the police in communities and they told us that the defining factor of what will make men change is what other men think of them,” says Tongue. “It’s peer pressure… to inspire change and inspire behaviour in the right manner, [pressure] can be a positive thing. It’s not about setting rules, it’s about setting standards.”

It’s an approach that recognises it’s not possible to break the tribal nature of NRL clubs – in fact, it’s essential to the code’s success and survival – so you need to change the behaviour tolerated by the tribe.

“I’ve found the cure to this cycle of violence and disrespect,” he tells the panting boys between drills, “And it’s you.”

As heads turn and chests puff, he pushes on, “You set the standard, you set the culture. You lead by example and people will follow you.”

The players are given scenarios and asked to categorise them as 'Acceptable' or 'Unacceptable'. 

There’s an ambitious agenda for tonight’s training session. It’s been designed with the expertise of domestic violence experts Our Watch and usually, we’d all be out on the field, charging through exercises under the lights of Shark Park, but the rain has kept us here in the bar.

ADVERTISEMENT

The program covers everything from language – “Is it okay to say someone runs like a girl?” (mostly, the players say yes, it is) – to financial and emotional control. “These boys,” Tongue tells me, “are right at the front of it, transitioning from juniors to seniors, getting into relationships, figuring out who they are.” This is the moment to get them.

There are sobering stats delivered about just how many women are victims of violence or emotional abuse, designed to open the eyes of the kids who might think this is not a problem in their world. “Think of three women in your life,” Tongue tells them, and you can almost see them conjuring their mums, sisters, friends, girlfriends, teachers, cousins. “One of those women will be a victim of abuse. One in three.”

They run drills where the players are literally forehead to forehead – butting heads and treading on each other’s toes – to illustrate the challenges that can lead to aggression. They talk booze – “Alcohol is never an excuse” – and power struggles.

Can words and games change a culture? Perhaps, if it becomes the culture.

Author Holly Wainwright with passionate NRL ambassador Alan Tongue.

The most powerful part of the night is when Tonguey leads the boys in small groups to describe what makes a good man. A man to be proud of. A man to be proud to be.

ADVERTISEMENT

Words fly. A real-man is kind, relaxed, trusting, respectful, honest, mature, resilient, mentally stable.

And tonight, in front of these boys, there’s an example of that man. The redhead with a broken nose, a beautiful energy, a family and a brilliant career marked by a swag of medals. And the more these young men on the cusp of adulthood are asked to consider what a role model really looks like, the better. And the more their choices are broadened from the narrow vision of a pumped-up aggressor, the better.

It’s like Tonguey says, “The same mistakes have been made for generations… but now the footy’s in your hands and the culture’s in your hands.”

It’s been two hours. As the boys leave the session, filing out into the dark drizzle of Sharkies' car park, they know that if they want to stay in the game, hold their dream in their hands like their heroes, this is not the first or last time they are going to hear this message. It’s going to be an ongoing theme throughout their careers.

Ignorance is no longer an option or an excuse.

Do you believe sport has an important place in changing young men's attitudes? 

Want to help make Australia a better place for women and girls? Take our survey now to help.

MMSurvey

00:00 / ???