Discussions about the concept of loyalty in rugby league have effectively become moot points in the machinations of the modern game.
Ever since the residential criteria rule changes in the late fifties and players became free to roam beyond their local teams to seek greener pastures, the game has evolved.
Many see that evolution as a hollow one, allowing self-interest and greed become the natural as a reflection of the broader degradation of social norms in our national culture.
It’s hard to disagree, but the financial rewards of the modern era are are the cause of the game’s shift from its amateurish origins to the slick and commercial product we see today.
From 1908 all clubs have attempted to build culture, history and loyalty. When things looked grim, those words were the adhesive that held clubs together.
South Sydney have a tribal and historical passion in their culture. Men loyal to the cardinal and myrtle have called on this history over the last 20 years through some of their epic battles.
Other foundation clubs, like Eastern Suburbs, Balmain and Western Suburbs, the latter being part of a merger that still hasn’t gelled fully, have also valued and promoted pride, history and loyalty to the jersey.
Post-war football was dominated by St George, and those players will eternally be heralded as heroes by those who remember those games or who grew up on stories of them.
Other great clubs, such as Manly, Parramatta and Canterbury, fostered passion and a sense of loyalty in and around the jersey with amazing successes on the field – winning still seems to be the most fundamental determinate in developing the desired emotional connection between club and fan.
Much has obviously changed between the last days of the full-time working rugby league player in the late seventies and the modern state of affairs.
Player managers have man-handled the game to some extent, players have become expendable entities to clubs obsessed with retention, recruitment and ‘moneyball’-type thinking, and the marketplace has dictated player movement.
While realising this and accepting the commercial realities of the game, it is easy to draw a simple conclusion.: loyalty, whether directed from player to club or vice versa, is dead.
That’s no scoop, and recent events have put the proverbial exclamation mark on the fact.
The absurd discussions around the so-called ‘big four’, Robbie Farah’s exit from the Tigers and the vast number of marquee players coming off contract and signing huge deals at new clubs have been hot talking points recently, as has Ben Hunt’s move to the Dragons, Jarryd Hayne’s ‘dreams’ that have led him all over the planet – and back at Parramatta, according to the latest headlines – and the sheer weight of numbers in Jason Taumalolo’s new contract extension.
These movements are all hallmarks of the financial and professional concerns of the modern player, and you know what? That’s okay. Players would be silly to think otherwise. Clubs would cut them loose at the drop of a hat, and their longevity in the game is never assured.
However, a core issue has arisen. As clubs seek long-term commitment from fans via memberships and use catchy emotional lines in electronic and print media to call upon fans passion and loyalty to the jumper, the clubs themselves and the players model the absolute opposite.
There is an irony in the fact that the promotional material clubs send to their paid-up or prospective members speaks in terms of ‘bleeding’ for the club. They use words like commitment, loyalty and history while at the same time planning to palm off a veteran captain or poach a promising young kid from the ‘sticks’ with big money freed up by the previous transaction.
It’s a paradox: loyalty in rugby league isn’t dead – indeed it is probably as strong as ever – but unfortunately it resides in the minds of the fans rather than the players, managers and clubs.
Fans emotionally connect with players; they believe the player loves the club as much as they do.
Fans queue up to meet players at fan days, where the player tells them how much they love the culture, the team and the environment. They aren’t lying – they do love their teammates and most are probably enjoying their footy – yet fans attach something so much stronger to the player’s words.
It is faithful and naïve loyalty to the club that causes the angst, frustration and cynicism when players sign huge deals elsewhere.
So if the game has naturally evolved and become reflective of the broader community, where commercialism, financial success and self-interest now dominate thinking, why has this evolution not taken place in the minds of the fans as well? Why are they such positive purists who still naively believe in the one-club player and the concept of loyalty?
Simply, it is because rugby league is the place where people take refuge away from that broader world. It is a place of fantasy and of heroes, where a sense of belonging that can’t be achieved in mundane everyday life is felt.
The sense of community, the common bonds and the spiritual experience of football encapsulated in the mind of the supporter doesn’t marry well with the corporate and business interests of the game.
There is a sense of irresponsibility in clubs using loyalty, passion, pride and commitment to connect with fans, yet the hollow feelings created through modern professionalism are exactly the same emotions fans feel towards governments, workplaces and corporations.
Therein lies the point: football was once an escape from those emotions. Now the romance is gone and it dishes up the same scepticism and cynicism as life itself.
As the game enters a heightened period of player movement and huge names move far and wide in the hunt for professional fulfilment, financial security and, ultimately, premierships, the naïve fan will somehow remain loyal and continue to seek escape despite total awareness of the situation.
They will continue to escape from the big bad world and go to the footy to see their heroes compete in a jersey whose colour could change in the wink of an eye – the same jersey to which they will remain loyal until the day they die, when it will be draped over their coffin.
It’s the same jersey that no one else but the fan seems to care about anymore.