Inside The Great Australian Sporting Revolt
Eastern Suburbs District Rugby League team circa 1913. Image Wikicommons
Sports

Inside The Great Australian Sporting Revolt

Two of the nation’s great working class pursuits, Cricket and Rugby League, are locking arms and sticking it to the man.
June 16, 2017, 2:24am

With nicknames like the 'Matraville Mauler,' 'Punter,' 'Tuggah,' 'Tubby,' 'Dizzy,' 'Pup,' and folk heroes like David Boon (who once set a record for consecutive cans of beer drunk on a flight from Australia to England) and 'Swervin' Merv Hughes, there is no mistaking it. Cricket is the people's game in Australia, which also makes it game of the working class.

Each year when the long hot summer rolls around, the nation's working men, on building sites, in office towers, driving trucks, taxis, cop cars, ambulances, fire engines and whatever else tune their dial to the cricket and let the methodical droll of Glenn Maxwell (ABC Radio) or Bill Lawry (Channel Nine) wash over them.

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Cricket is the great equaliser and no sport distils the nation's values better. Every Australian cricket great of the past 70 years has been defined by grit, work ethic and, alternatively, a bubbling larrikin streak (Merv Hughes, Boonie, Andrew Symonds, David Warner, Shane Warne etc) or a vicious and terminal case of tall poppy syndrome (Allan Border, Don Bradman).

The Mattraville Mauler, David Warner. Image: Wikicommons

There might be an air of class and decorum to Australian cricket but it's the class and decorum of someone like Richie Benaud, a hard-hitting journalist before he became the hard-hitting all-rounder and commentary great.

It's important to understand the values that underpin cricket in this country in order to make sense of the militancy with which the players have behaved in the current pay dispute with the game's administrator, Cricket Australia.

When the latest faceless suit to become CEO of Cricket Australia tried to hardball the nation's top cricketers into a pay scenario they didn't deem fair there was only going to be one outcome.

With the June 30 negotiation deadline looming, Cricket Australia is facing an unprecedented player strike that could completely destroy the upcoming summer cricket schedule. Should negotiations fall over once again when the player's union and Cricket Australia meet later this week, the administrator will be forced to come good on its promise to sack the nation's top players, locking them out of training facilities and denying access to coaches and specialists as they begin their pre-season training for the 2017/18 summer.

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On the player's side, if their terms are not met they have promised unprecedented strike action that will likely see the top brass pull out of the upcoming Ashes Series in Australia this summer - an absolute disaster for the game, with tickets already on sale for that storied rivalry.

The players are demanding they keep their 26% share of all revenue generated by cricket annually in Australia. The administrator is trying to force players to abandon their percentage revenue share in exchange for a $500 million total player payment pool. You can read about the ins and outs of the deal here.

In the US, athletes receive approximately a 50% share of revenue. Footballers in Europe get somewhere between 60% and 70%.

Several of Australia's top players - including Australian test and one-day captain, Steve Smith, David 'the Matraville Mauler' Warner, wicketkeeper Mathew Wade, and fast-bowlers Mitch Starc, Pat Cummins, and Mitchell Jonson have all pledged solidarity with the union, with the Matraville Mauler particularly vocal in his distaste for the cricketing establisment.

"If we are unemployed, we have no contracts, we can't play," Warner said. "We are pretty sure that they will come to an agreement. But, as you know, we are going to be unemployed come July 1. So we have to wait and see."

"It is only what we hear in the media and that's how CA have been driving it the whole way," he said. "They have been using the media as a voice and we get the message from there."

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And so we wait.

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Whether by coincidence or whether emboldened by the militancy of Australia's cricketers, the nation's other great working class game, rugby league, has also locked arms in a simultaneous pay dispute with its administrator, the National Rugby League (NRL).

Rugby league, whose favourite sons include Andrew and Mathew Johns, the sons of a Newcastle coal miner, the original Polynesian power-house and garbageman, Olsen Filipaina, and former apprentice-jockey turned Queensland and Melbourne Storm great, Billy Slater, belongs strictly to the working and welfare classes in this country (rich people and private school kids play aussie rules and rugby union).

Rugby league is also, without question, the toughest team sport on the planet. Players average around 100 kilograms and slam into each other without padding from 20 meters apart for 80 minutes in a game that would be injurious enough if it were played without malice (which it isn't. Players are definitely out there to hurt each other).

Image: Wikicommons

If anyone deserves a pay raise it's these guys, especially given the increasing awareness about the long lasting effects of concussions and head traumas suffered while playing the game.

"We're putting our bodies on the line each week and we're doing so much and all we ask for is a bit back in return," said Canterbury Bulldogs and former NSW State of Origin star, William Hopoate.

Like the cricketers they are pursuing a fixed percentage of the revenue, in their case 29% of all money generated by the game, which is believed to amount to close to $1 million more in next year's salary cap than the NRL is currently offering.

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"No, I don't think it's unreasonable [what players are asking]," said Queensland and Australian captain Cameron Smith, who is also president of the player's union, known as the Rugby League Player's Association.

"There's been a substantial increase in money come into the game and that's mostly due to the guys that are producing on the field. The product that the broadcasters pay for is what the players produce," he said.

In remarkable scenes - considering it was the eve of State of Origin - NSW playmaker, James Maloney broke ranks with his team to show solidarity with Smith.

"It is disappointing to see the NRL go to clubs and deliver the wrong message about what our proposal is about — that we are being greedy and trying to bring the game to its knees, which is the complete opposite," Maloney said.

"We just want a shared percentage of the revenue so our money moves in time with the game. If the game goes backwards our pay goes backwards.

"It's not a greedy money grab. The players in the past have suffered from mismanagement of how the NRL use funds. There doesn't seem to be any accountability for how they spend their money.

"We got caught out in the last CBA (collective bargaining agreement) when the game exceeded predictions and their forecasts by a long way. When we had a meeting to discuss the profitability and whether there was anything there for us, apparently the game wasn't any more profitable even through they had well exceeded their forecasts.

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"I suppose as a playing group that makes you scratch your head. There seems to be a real objection to the fixed share of revenue, which is surprising. As a playing group, the players aren't going to accept anything less," he said.

Once again, a player's strike is a high likelihood if their demands aren't met, potentially putting the Rugby League World Cup at the end of the season in jeopardy.

"The playing group and the RLPA, we're not going to disappear. We're not going to run away with our tail between our legs," said Smith.

Rugby league recently signed the biggest broadcast deal in its history prompting many leading players to call for a further increase in salaries. Players, meanwhile, are forced to play an incredible 26 games a year, not including finals, State of Origin, or Test duties, which can add another ten games.

In response, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg says player salaries and allowances had risen by 45 per cent during the current broadcast cycle. In a move that angered the players and their union, the NRL gave an unprecedented insight into the game's finances last week, releasing a list of figures detailing revenue and spending for 2016. According to the NRL, the game generated $350 million in broadcast and non-broadcast revenue, while spending or distributing $353 million in the following way:

  • $160.2 million to clubs, including players;
  • $59.8 million to States and grassroots rugby league;
  • $72.1 million in revenue generating costs (including representative payments to players, stadium costs and sponsor servicing);
  • $21.5 million for administration, which includes staff and building costs, insurance and other overheads;
  • $22.6 million in football department and integrity costs, which includes referees, representative programs, drug testing and salary cap administration;
  • $16.9 million for community, education and wellbeing programs. Also includes retirement payments to players.

While there has never been strike action by cricket or rugby league players in Australia, it has occurred many times around the world, including a 232-day strike in 1994 by Major League Baseball (MLB) players; a 127-day lockout in 2011 by the National Football League (NFL); Lockouts of 204 and 161 days, respectively, in 1998-99 and 2011 by the National Basketball Association; and the National Hockey League (NHL) had lockouts of 301 and 119 days, respectively, in 2004-05 and 2012-13.