Rugby league people have long scratched their heads about how to secure a fair and proportionate share of press coverage for their spectacular sport. They inadvertently discovered one method when the excessive retaliation of Wigan’s Ben Flower on St Helens’ Lance Hohaia in the recent Super League Grand Final exploded all over the national media.
The incident provided an excellent exhibit A for the case that “not all publicity is good publicity”. But whilst Flower’s second punch was undoubtedly an appalling act of violence, the coverage it attracted frequently strayed into hysteria. Some such commentary came from the world of Premier League football, where hysterical is the default setting.
To pick on just one example, Gary Lineker tweeted snidely that the Flower incident showed how well behaved footballers actually were and invited us to imagine the reaction if it had happened on a football pitch. Having taken a moment to overcome any irritation at the narcissism of that remark (which reflects modern football’s inability to see anything without looking through the “it’s all about us” prism) and to sympathise with our poor, put upon multi-millionaire footballers, let’s accept Mr Lineker’s invitation and imagine what the reaction would have been.
Initially, a festival of pouting, petulance and flouncing for the remainder of the game. Then, several weeks of the protagonists calling each other names on Twitter whilst ostentatiously declaring that they will never to speak to each other again. The clubs involved loudly blaming each other and refusing to accept any responsibility. Months of dithering by the FA whilst it works out how to be seen to do something whilst avoiding upsetting two of its biggest clubs. A drawn-out and embarrassing court case driving far less trivial matters off the news agenda….
Now compare and contrast that with the way the Flower incident was handled by the Rugby Football League and the parties involved in it. I realise, by the way, that you may not have noticed this because their exemplary conduct had the side effect of closing down the story quickly and effectively.
There was immediate yet measured condemnation and contrition from the Wigan side, including a heartfelt apology by Flower to Hohaia that was graciously received. Both clubs focused on the need to place their mutual respect ahead of their intense local rivalry in future. A disciplinary hearing was swiftly convened and gave Flower a six month ban. Wigan’s Chief Executive, Kris Radlinski, instantly took the opportunity on the steps outside to waive his club’s right of appeal and express further apologies to Hohaia, St Helens and the game as a whole. This was then reciprocated by Saints’ Chairman, Eamonn MacManus, who made clear his club’s desire for the matter to end there. He accepted that Flower had acted completely out of character, been punished appropriately and emphasised the need to ensure his well-being was taken care of during his absence from the sport.
Having totally lost control of his emotions during the incident that led to his dismissal in the Final, Ben Flower is by all accounts feeling intense remorse for his actions and struggling to deal with that under the unaccustomed attention he has received. Whilst leaving him in no doubt about his own responsibility for his actions, his club and the wider rugby league world will support him through this difficult period and ensure that he emerges from it as a better man.
As ever, rugby league is ahead of the enlightenment curve in the sporting world and understands the pressures created by the unique physical and emotional intensity of the game at the highest level. One aspect of this is its “State of Mind” initiative, which has worked for several years to remove the stigma attached to mental health issues and takes care of players during times of stress, such as injury, post-retirement and other high pressure situations. This resource will be at Flower’s disposal if he needs it.
The now infamous second punch incident was so highly publicised because it was so unusual, in fact unprecedented, in the modern era of rugby league. After the initial shock of it subsided, it led only, on reflection, to increase my admiration for the players. The only surprise should be that something like it does not happen more often as a reaction to the intense physical battering they subject themselves to every week. The players’ consistent ability to maintain what leading coach Brian Noble calls a “heart on fire, head in the fridge” combination of commitment and self-control is astonishing to behold.
Rugby League as a whole should also be proud of the typically mature and dignified way it dealt with the testing situation that arose from its showpiece occasion. Not for the first time, it offered a perfect example of how to handle a controversy that certain other sports could learn from.