How much more can the NRL do to protect players from themselves?
On Tuesday night, Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates held his annual Christmas drinks at the rooftop bar of the MCA building overlooking Sydney Harbour.
It was an exclusive party attended not only by Coates close mates but also some of the countrys leading sporting administrators.
In one corner, three of the last four NRL chief executives — Neil Whittaker, David Gallop and Todd Greenberg — clinked glasses and took time to pause and reflect on the past year.
In truth, Greenberg was only thinking about the last two days.
On Monday, two-time Dally M Medallist Jarryd Hayne fronted Burwood Local Court on aggravated sexual assault charges after allegedly biting a woman on the genitals on the night of the NRL grand final. Haynes lawyer says he will plead not guilty.
On Tuesday, Manly centre Dylan Walker appeared in Manly Local Court after he was charged with common assault and assault occasioning actual bodily harm after an alleged incident with his partner, Alexandra Ivkovic, at their home in Dee Why last week. He has pleaded not guilty.
A few days earlier, Wests Tigers recruit Zane Musgrove and Penriths Liam Coleman were charged for the alleged indecent assault of a 22-year-old woman at the Coogee Bay Hotel on November 24.
Gallop more than anyone knows what its like to walk in Greenbergs shoes.
He was in charge during the Coffs Harbour rape allegations involving the Bulldogs in 2004 (that led to no police charges being laid); when Manly fullback Brett Stewart was charged with raping a 17-year-old woman in 2009 (he was later acquitted); and when a Four Corners special investigation uncovered a culture of group sex and seedy practices involving young women.
Gallops advice to Greenberg: “Stay calm. Treat every case on its merits. Thats all you can do”.
The next morning, as news broke that Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan was facing possible expulsion from the game, Greenbergs phone buzzed.
What now? He took the call. His head dropped.
Dragons star Jack de Belin was being investigated by Wollongong police for the alleged sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman in the early hours of Sunday morning.
On Thursday, at a meeting at League Central in Sydney, Greenberg gave the chairs and chief executives of the 16 clubs a heads-up about the impending storm.
“I need every single one of you to stand in front of your players before Christmas and eyeball them and remind them of their obligations,” he said. “There are a few things that are public today, and some things that arent public yet but I know they're coming. I need every one of you to take ownership of your club.”
Some of the club bosses solemnly nodded. Those who have been around a long time know its easier said than done: controlling footballers, especially out of season, is like herding cats.
Later that day, De Belin voluntarily attended Wollongong police station where he was charged with aggravated sexual assault in company. He has told club officials he is innocent and denies any kind of assault.
At 5.30pm, as the Herald broke the story online, NRL chief commercial officer Andrew Abdo was in a meeting with a multinational company trying to persuade them to invest millions of dollars.
Rugby league is becoming a tough sell. Its battered image explains why it doesnt have any major commercial relationship with an airline, bank or supermarket.
Even the most barnacled football officials were genuinely rocked by the news about De Belin, who is considered one of the code's genuine poster boys.
Hailing from Cootamundra in the Riverina, he had to work harder than most to realise his NRL dream. He wasnt particularly talented or blessed physically. At one point, he was so broke he lived on two cans of baked beans for the week while chasing a contract with the Dragons instead of working full-time.
He reached the top of the sport through hard work and it had made him genuinely humble and widely admired. It makes the past two days difficult for weary fans to digest.
In the meantime, other supporters have taken to social media to deliver their verdict about whos at fault and whos the victim in all of the above cases.
Its foolish. The matters are before the courts and the accused deserve a presumption of innocence, just as the women involved should be respected. Those who have sounded off on Facebook might want to run their angry posts past a defamation lawyer.
The events of this off-season have left Greenberg and the rest of the NRL executive shell-shocked. They have already stained the 2019 season three months before it starts.
Hayne doesnt have a contract, but Walker and De Belin are two of the games biggest names.
De Belin has been granted conditional bail and wont appear in court again until February 12. It could take all season or longer for the matter to be resolved.
Theres an argument that players charged with serious criminal offences should be stood down indefinitely. The NRL has that power but would only do so if it had compelling evidence, like video footage, at its disposal.
Yet it fears setting a dangerous precedent. If a player is later cleared by the courts, he could seek substantial damages.
Former NSW Premier Mike Baird wanted Roosters winger Shaun Kenny-Dowall stood down in 2015 when he was charged with one count of assault occasioning bodily harm and six counts of common assault involving former partner Jessica Peris. It was political grandstanding at its worst.
A year later, Kenny-Dowall was cleared with the magistrate highly critical of Ms Peris, saying her evidence in court was "calculated, evasive and intentionally framed".
What happened with Kenny-Dowall explains why the NRL has, in the past, dealt with domestic violence on a case-by-case basis, as Gallop advised Greenberg earlier this week.
But it doesnt explain why those found guilty are allowed back in the game.
The NRL was pilloried for registering Matt Lodges contract with the Broncos this year following his infamous rampage in New York City in 2015 in which he stalked two women and told them: “This is the night you die”.
Lodge also pleaded guilty to one charge of common assault involving his ex-girlfriend, Charlene Saliba, during his three years of exile.
Lodge didnt just waltz back into the game as many blindly argued but he was given a second chance after he eventually proved to the NRLs integrity unit he deserved one following months of rehabilitation.
The NRL has resisted a policy of “zero tolerance” for players found guilty of domestic violence or sexual abuse because of the complexities of each case. Its never black and white.
It also prides itself on rehabilitating players, on making them better men, on its inspiring tales of redemption.
Others will say thats not the games responsibility. And besides, when did domestic violence come in different shades of grey?
Such is the mood at League Central right now, the NRL is edging closer to the policy of zero tolerance it once shunned. The next player found guilty of any misconduct concerning women should expect a lengthy, if not permanent, ban.
Right on cue, the NRL has been slammed for not educating young players about how to properly treat women and not put themselves in compromising situations. As always, its a cop-out.
According to the NRL, it spent more than $7.2 million on wellbeing and education programs for male and female elite players. About $500,000 of that went into “respectful relationships” education. In other words, how to treat women respectfully.
In the past seven weeks, senior NRL official Paul Walker has travelled to various regional centres of NSW to ram home the same message to elite junior players.
This weekend, at the annual rookie camp, current NRL players will take future stars through workshops and real-life scenarios concerning the proper treatment of women.
This is hardly revelatory stuff. These initiatives have been in place since Gallop ran the game.
In many respects, the way footballers behave around and treat women has improved dramatically. In others, with the rise of social media and camera phones, its never been more hazardous for both parties. Random hook-ups can be arranged within minutes and recorded at the same time.
Clubs and player managers must wear some of the blame for the sense of entitlement some players carry with them.
Theres a different set of standards for the superstar player and the dispensable first-grader on the fringes. Some clubs will never take full responsibility for the men they create, as long as those men win them matches.
Ultimately, though, the buck stops with the individual.
Players can do whatever they want, just like the rest of us. They can cheat on their pregnant wife, trade lurid images of their private parts via direct messages on social media if it's consensual, engage in group sex as long as everyones a willing participant and nobody gets hurt or humiliated.
But if they do, they must surely realise by now that, as professional athletes with a very recognisable face, they are playing with fire. Perhaps it's time for players to take ownership of themselves.
Chief Sports Writer, The Sydney Morning Herald