COMMENT: Years from now, leaguies may well look back on February 2019 as the time when the culture of the game changed forever. And for the better.
After a series of incidents involving NRL players committing violence against women, CEO Todd Greenberg has drawn a line in the sand with the deregistration of the talented but deeply flawed Ben Barba.
CCTV footage shown to the NRL's integrity unit appear to show Barba committing three separate acts of violence against his partner and the mother of his four children at the Townsville Casino on Australia Day.
Barba had just returned to the NRL to play with the Cowboys after spending two years in England playing in the Super League. And he didn't go to England because he liked the weather. He was there because he'd been banned after testing positive for cocaine – his second strike for drug use. So, yeah. Barba has form.
There is absolutely no doubt that Barba is a talented footy player. He was signed to the Bulldogs as a teenager and he is one of only two men to win both the Dally M Player of the Year and the Super League's Man of Steel player of the year. But while he's good on the field, off it he's a nightmare.
The NRL have been given him second, third and fourth chances – but this time, the administrators have had a gutsful. Todd Greenberg did not mince his words in his press conference this week. We're going to get tougher and stronger on players that do the wrong thing because we cannot afford the damage it does to our game, he said.
Violence against women sits at the top of the pile when it comes to offences for which players would be held accountable, he went on, and players needed to understand that it's a great privilege to play rugby league and to earn a significant income.
And just to make matters abundantly clear to the players in the NRL, he reminded them that with privilege comes responsibility and if they stepped outside the crease, they were putting their livelihoods at risk. He suggested that Barba start looking for a new job. But that's something Barba is going to struggle to do.
The Super League has already said they won't have him back. The Rugby Union has said don't come knocking. And the only job he's done outside footy has been as a car washer while he was waiting to make his breakthrough into the premier league. And that's where I think the NRL owes him and his family a duty of care – since he was shoulder tapped from school to play in the NRL, the NRL is all he's ever known.
He has a partner who has stuck by him – I can't even begin to imagine why. It can't just be for the money – and four children and he's only 29. He has to know that he has a future for himself and his family. It can be done. I wrote about Russell Packer last year, a former Warriors and current Wests Tigers player, who has completely transformed his life. After years of indiscretions, Packer committed a vicious assault and the judge had the cajones to send a well known sportsman to jail. It was in prison that Packer realised he had to change.
He committed to counselling, gave up drinking and, on his release, made the Dean's Merit List at the University of Wollongong where he studied accounting and commerce. He's back playing league and is considered the most prodigal of the sons of league.
He had to reach his nadir before he could become the man he was capable of being. I just hope that Barba has the same road to Damascus experience, for his sake and for the sake of the people who love him.