Nina Funnell | SMH | April 17, 2012
Suspended for a year ... Robert Lui of the Cowboys. Photo: Getty Images
The new Australian Rugby League Commission has suspended Cowboys halfback Robert Lui for a year and Sharks player Isaac Gordon for nine matches after both were found guilty of domestic violence-related assaults.
Gordon pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend and threatening to kill her after a booze-filled evening in September. She was seven months pregnant.
Lui also pleaded guilty to assaulting his girlfriend, Taleah Rae Backo, who said he entered the apartment via a balcony, pushed her in the chest, then dragged her by her hair to a mattress where he kicked her several times and headbutted her. This assault also took place in September, following end-of-season Mad Monday celebrations.
Out for nine matches ... the Sharks' Isaac Gordon. Photo: Getty Images
Many in the rugby league fraternity have welcomed the bans, including former Kangaroos David Peachey and Sam Backo, the uncle of Ms Backo - but others have been less receptive.
Lui's 12-month suspension has ignited fierce debate, with the Cowboys and the Rugby League Players' Association boss David Garnsey claiming he was not given the chance to tell his side of the story when his punishment was being decided.
But if the 22,000 signatures on a petition calling on the NRL to take a tougher stance on domestic violence are anything to go by, the bans will be popular with the public. If anything, some believe they are too lenient, particularly as the players will be paid in full during their suspension.
The petition was set up by Anthony Simpson, a rugby league fan who says there should be an "automatic, one-season ban for any player found guilty of assaulting a woman … Under this policy, every player who is convicted of violence against women would be stood down for a year. It would send a signal to players that there are serious consequences for assaulting women."
As an anti-violence campaigner, I welcome the general sentiment. And yet the proposed time limit of one year seems fairly arbitrary; why not two years, or five? It is also not clear why assaults against women should carry an automatic suspension while assaults against men should not. Aside from pub brawls and street-based assaults, we must remember men can also be victims of intimate partner and family violence at the hands of other men (although women still make up the overwhelming majority of victims in family violence cases).
One of the many factors that make domestic violence cases incredibly sensitive and complex is there is often ongoing contact or financial dependency between the victim and the perpetrator. Lui, for example, still lives with his girlfriend and their son. Gordon's former girlfriend also gave birth to the child.
While the public is baying for player blood, it is important that administrators assess cases like these on an individual basis, responding to the needs not just of the game but of the victim and any children. While suspensions or expulsions are absolutely appropriate in domestic violence cases, one problem with automatic, blanket bans is they lack the nuance and ability to respond to individual circumstances and do not offer a rehabilitation plan for victims and families.
NRL chief executive David Gallop says: "We do not support fixed automatic penalties because people's lives are too complex and because individual circumstances can be too varied. We do believe a clear message should be sent, one that encompasses suspension, counselling and rehabilitation."
This seems sensible. Offenders should be legally and professionally held to account, but it is also important that the public resists the urge to demonise players by treating domestic violence as an issue which is confined to, or indeed caused by, sport.
To do so would miss the wider structural arrangements which give rise to gender violence and would divert attention away from the reality that domestic violence occurs in every class, culture and community.
It would also miss the point that there are many players and fans just as appalled by violence against women as victims' groups are. While bans might "send a message" to potential perpetrators (both within the game and outside it), they also send an equally important message to victims, their supporters and the many ethical players who vocally oppose gender violence: that they are not alone.
Nina Funnell is a member of the Premier's Council on Preventing Violence Against Women and has worked with rugby league players and other elite athletes.