NRL, Dragons risk public wrath over de Belin
IT IS a father having to explain to his 11-year-old Dragons-worshipping son why his hero, Jack de Belin, is up on a rape charge.
It is the rusted-on Dragons fans such as Phil Kerjean, who's been attending games for the past 40 years and says allegations of player misbehaviour are "killing" the sport and thinks de Belin should "sidelined".
"I thought Jack de Belin was a cool dude, great player - by the way I love the Dragons, I am a Steelers fan," Kerjean said.
"The thing is, it would be sad to lose a player but I can just imagine the shit that is going to happen every time that he runs on the field or picks up the ball.
"Everyone will boo. People speak. Not saying that Jack de Belin should be tried, tested and crucified today, but I wouldn't of thought the Dragons would let him play."
This week the NRL and the Dragons have misread the moral compass of fans who have been upset or angered by de Belin being allowed to play on.
Many in club land were deeply disturbed by details surrounding de Belin's alleged rape of teenager that emerged in court on Wednesday.
The severity of these allegations moved powerful owner and chairman of the Melbourne Storm Bart Campbell to send an email to club bosses criticising the NRL, writing "standing around while Rome burns is not good enough. As a game we need to do something".
Souths chairman and solicitor Nick Pappas declined to comment specifically on de Belin's case, but had broader thoughts on what should happen when very serious allegations arise concerning players.
Pappas told this column these issues need to be treated on a case-by-case basis - "blanket rules are very dangerous".
He added that above all, the strongest message should be sent out to the community when it came to serious allegations such as aggravated sexual assault.
"Depending on the severity of the charges and the nature of the plea, a number of factors come into play, but the more serious the allegations are, the stronger the argument becomes that the player should be stood down," Pappas said.
"I am not speaking about the specific case, but there are some charges that are so serious that, even if they are vehemently denied, in the intervening period a very clear message needs to be sent to the community that such conduct, if proven, will not be tolerated.
"So, the more serious the circumstances, the more likelihood that the person should be stood down pending an investigation.
"It is as much about perception as it is about reality, and we want the game to be held in the highest possible regard - particularly now, after the off season we have unfortunately had."
Wests Tigers chair Marina Go believes footballers on aggravated sexual assault charges should be stood down.
"I support the growing calls from people in the game, and the growing sentiment from the fan base, and I too am on the side of him being stood down," Go said.
"I believe he should be stood down, not because most other people do, but because it is the right thing to do for this situation for our game. And also for Jack de Belin.
"The reputational damage to our game increases the longer that nothing happens."
Titans executive chairman Dennis Watt said he supported the Storm chairman's stance.
"In principle, we support the information put forward by Bart Campbell but we are also mindful of the legal minefield that may follow some of these (alleged) indiscretions," Watt said.
"As a club we have a zero tolerance towards violence against women."
Parramatta was also supportive of players up on serious charges such as rape being stood down.
Two other prolific club chairmen also backed Campbell but declined to go public with their stance.
It is clear last week's effective life ban of Ben Barba, who is accused of domestic violence in an incident caught on CCTV, where no charges have been laid, wasn't and isn't enough to temper the public outrage and sponsor disappointment around NRL player misbehaviour.
This week's inaction on de Belin shows the NRL hasn't learnt from their poor handling of the Matthew Lodge case last year - another case where the NRL tried to usher a scandal-plagued footballer back onto the field despite him not having paid a cent of the $US1 million compensation owed to his victims of his rampage in a New York City apartment.
Instead the code continues to exist in a reactive space with no clear boundaries. It has an inconsistent approach to punishment, which frustrates club bosses to no end.
There isn't a uniform set of penalties or protocols on what exactly to do when a player is accused of a serious offence like rape.
And Go thinks this needs to change.
"The main reason that I think we need a really clear and decisive framework on what to do on situations like this is the difficulty in leaving it to clubs where there is a competing need to win on the weekend and field their best players," she said.
"There is inherently a conflict of interest at club land, you can't avoid it, even the best people with the highest integrity, some of them are challenged by that."
What also needs to change is the focus of some people when issues like these arise - the spotlight must be on footballers' behaviour. The women are not the ones on trial or charged by police.
A long-time sponsor and supporter of the game, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was sick of all of the relentless stream of player misbehaviour
"It is disappointing to see players that don't take their professions as seriously as they should. If anyone in the corporate world did anything that these players do, they would lose their job," he said.
This week, fans have called the sports desk, not to criticise, but in support of the Telegraph's coverage of the issue.
There is a feeling this week has been a tipping point - fans expect more from their footy code.
As Campbell put it bluntly in his email to club bosses: "We appear to be morally tone deaf as an organisation. We're repeatedly making life tough for ourselves … it's time for the governing body to act and act quickly."