The game is not played in Ivory towers.
We’re in a new era of professional rugby.
As I sit here, a few months into the role as Chief Executive of International Rugby Players CEO, I look forward with real optimism as to what we can collectively achieve in this new era.
The reason I refer to this new era is because several very clear lines have been drawn in recent times with respect to the input of rugby players into the game in a global sense. These have been in the form of the following positive developments:
- A comprehensive Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with World Rugby, which details the wide range of projects and initiatives that we are going to work on
- A relocation to Dublin to allow far greater interaction with World Rugby and employing dedicated full time staff •A governance overhaul which allows for greater involvement of the right people with more accountability
- Continuing to build player engagement with their international representative body, which has been strongly evidenced in the various forums we’ve conducted with World Rugby
So, what then are the big challenges that we face in the next 3 to 5 years in order to get the organisation to a place which we deem to be successful?
There are so many operational building blocks that go into achieving this, however there is one thing in my view that transcends all of these functions and allows us to position ourselves where we need to be in the game.
This thing I refer to here is establishing a culture of respect. The great Springbok Jean De Villiers recently commented that “the game has for too long failed to properly respect and integrate the input of players into the games big decisions globally”. This essentially encapsulates this challenge I refer to – a challenge which is always a difficult one as people are often slow to change their long held views.
This challenge can be broken down into a number do of ‘sub—challenges’ when trying to drive this culture of mutual respect. Essentially it’s about:
- Continually reminding people that the players are the primary generators of income into our sport and that they are the reason we are all working in Rugby in the first place!
- Ensuring that the ‘tug of war’ between commercial interests and player welfare interest is always approached with the human element first
- Recognising that the game isn’t played in ivory towers and that the player viewpoint is always the most central one… and often the most crucial one. This could be in relation to regulatory framework, laws of the game, disciplinary protocol, player workload and burnout, the list goes on…
- Eliminating some attitudes that shows an under-appreciation of the player’s role in the game.
So, how do we establish exactly where we sit and how do we gauge exactly how we’re progressing in our sport relative to others? In addition to my role with the International Rugby Players, I am also privileged to sit on the boards of both the European Athletes and World Athletes Associations. These elite groups allow me to experience, in very close detail, the manner in which players interact with their respective governing bodies across a wide range of sports in a wide range of countries.
At a very recent World Athletes Board meeting, senior executives from the NHL Players Association, NFL Players Association, Japanese Baseball Players, FifPro International footballers, International Cricket Players were present – I sit on this board representing International Rugby Players. The reason I talk about this is because there are some very interesting observations come out of being in this type of forum.
An interesting area of comparison is the manner in which players are regarded as human beings as opposed to just dispensable athletes. This includes the acknowledgement given to their basic human rights, including the degree to which the athletes’ health and overall welfare are considered. In this regard, rugby gets mixed reviews – some countries are clearly better than others when it comes to recognising the long term health of their players, whilst others, even at the very top level, operate in an environment that demands it pound of flesh at all costs. This is precisely why the area of player load is right at the top of our agenda, as such attitudes have severe impact on the longevity of careers and the eventual state of their bodies.
It is also important to consider the sport’s overall attention to players alternative career ambitions. This is a job that is taken on primarily by players’ associations and in the case of rugby we are definitely leading the way amongst other sports in this regard. On this note it would be fair to say that the Player Personal Development Programmes we have in rugby are incredibly well advanced and the envy of other sports and I am pleased to report that national governing bodies within the game are, for the most part, very proactive in supporting their players associations drive these initiatives.
In assessing the area of players’ human rights, it is worth noting the comparison of various sports is the manner in which players and administrators generally interact with each other. This can be defined in different ways, including the sharing of information and level of contractual detail that exist between the parties, often reflecting the level of mutual respect existent. It can also be measured in the overall attitude towards engagement, including employees’rights to have a voice at all important decision making forums. In this regard, Rugby probably sits mid-pack amongst its counterparts, with some sports (notably American sports) very much ahead of rugby in terms of approach to this area.
All things considered however, our relationship with World Rugby and the other major stakeholders in the game is going in the right direction. It is always important that we’re striving to be better, and in this regard it is essential that we continue benchmarking against other sports in not only promoting our players rights but also in promoting the integrity of our sport.
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