Rugby League’s Outdated Approach to Free Agency

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Free agency is often the most exciting period of the year in many sports fan’s lives.

It’s a time when idealism is forged, dreams are made and hope springs eternal.

For fans of a struggling franchise, it’s a time of optimism. Perhaps the next great star will sign on and find their way to bring a club back into contention. For a powerhouse team, it’s another way to maintain an iron-grip on their league.

One good signing can make-or-break a franchise for years to come. Perhaps signing a particular player will bring an increased fan base, which in turn generates revenue, sponsorships, and funding for youth programs, or facility upgrades.

A poor signing may have the opposite effect. Over-pay for a player, or sign those who don’t perform at the level expected, and you hamstring your ability to sign other quality role players, as well as shackling your potential for internal improvement – developing youngsters can’t play top-flight competition if an overpaid, under-performing veteran is above them on the depth chart for several years.

These are just some of the benefits and drawbacks all professional sporting codes must face when free agency rears its head every off-season. So what does this have to do with the NRL specifically? It’s because the NRL is different. And this difference, in my mind, doesn’t manifest itself in a beneficial way.

The NRL is stuck in a former age when it comes to free agency. A time when the league was semi-professional. Where beers were drunk post-game in the sheds as a form of recovery. When concussions were just ‘ran off’ and laughed about the next day.

Fortunately the league has shown sense in the matters of player safety, and developed appropriate recovery protocols, but it’s still an out-dated league when it comes to free agency.

And here we come to the crux of the issue of professionalism in the NRL today.

No other league in the world has an authorized, legally binding contract that can be signed – a “formal handshake agreement” if you will – to join a rival club in the upcoming season in the middle of the current one. That is absolutely ridiculous.

From the start of the season through to week 13, a player can stew over their choice of club.

How is this still allowed to happen? It baffles the mind that a player can commit to a potentially multimillion dollar contract and then having a “cooling off” period of several months to mull-over his decision. This period allows a player to renege on their decision, claim they made a mistake, and remain with their current club. The issue has reared its head recently as Manly’s star half-back Daly Cherry-Evans decided it was in his best interests to remain at Manly, rather than move up north to the Gold Coast. He isn’t the first player to use this “cooling off” period, and stir up a hive of controversy. He is just the latest.

Let me be clear – Cherry-Evans was entirely within his rights to make this decision. There was nothing illegal, or against the rules of the game in his choice. The problem is it’ll happen again, and continue happening until a modification is made of the NRL bargaining agreement and their by-laws.

Can a player truly say they competed with full effort against their soon-to-be new club? Maybe they slightly pulled out of a tackle, that could’ve dislodged the ball, and caused a turnover? Maybe they didn’t hit as hard, to avoid injuring a future teammate, concerned for their future together. We won’t ever know this. An active player will never admit to it in public.

For as long as the NRL maintains this policy, it’ll tear asunder the dreams of jilted fans, and blast apart years of salary cap planning by front-offices around the NRL. Manly is thrilled to retain Cherry-Evans services. But the exorbitant cost they’ve been forced to pay is going to be talked about for years to come – what happens in 2, 3 or 5 years when they’re trying to sign their own players from the National Youth Competition, or valuable bench players needed to flesh out a championship contending squad… and a massive chunk of their available cap space is taken up by a single player, when you need to dress 17?

That’s a problem the Sea Eagles front office will confront when it’s time to do so. For now, since Cherry-Evans decision was finally made in stone, they’ve begun to turn their season around, winning three of their last four games, and keeping their slim Playoff chances alive.

On the other side of the coin, what about the Gold Coast, which had planned to build a resurgent squad around Cherry-Evans, on a four-year contract? They’re now forced to go back to the drawing board. Championship winning, Australian representative halfbacks don’t go on the market very often. To have a star like Daly Cherry-Evans reject the club after months of hand wringing is devastating for the franchise.

It’s not as if there’s a tough call to be made here for the NRL and its Players Association. The solution is clear and evident to anyone who follows professional sport outside Australia. The National Basketball Association has a dedicated free agency period. It started July 1st at midnight. Teams sign contracts with free agents – exactly like Daly Cherry-Evans – at a phenomenal rate. By the end of the week, star players will have re-upped with their current clubs. Dwayne Wade has already done so with his Miami Heat. Whereas up and coming studs like Detroit’s Greg Monroe has signed a massive deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s a Buck now. Officially. Signed on paper with no take-backs. It’s done.

The only way Monroe can leave Milwaukee now is through being traded by the franchise or bought out by the club – paying out a portion of his contract to allow Monroe to walk away – a mutually beneficial agreement for both teams.

The NBA free agent signing period is a tremendously exciting time, coming just after the conclusion of the NBA Finals and the NBA Draft. It keeps fans invested in the fortunes of their team, when otherwise it would be a down-period in the NBA. Major League Baseball is in full-swing, and the National Football League has begun training camp. Placing the NBA’s free agent period in such a pivotal period of on the calendar is a firm way of retaining interest in the Association.

The NRL aims to present itself as a year-round fully professional competition. It could learn by the successes of other professional sporting codes, and adopting their policies to secure the future of the game.

If it is to do this, a free agency period is a strong step towards legitimacy, particularly in the off-season and before the highly successful Rugby 9’s pre-season competition commences.

First-grade players aren’t required to work behind a bar in the off-season, or haul lumber at a mill-yard to pay the bills. If it is to be fully professional, it must move past the handshake deals that were prevalent and acceptable in the 1980’s, in an age long-past. The league needs to be better than that. For sustainability purposes at the very minimum. Rugby Union will continue to soar past it as a source of rival football entertainment, soccer will continue to dominate at grass-roots level, and basketball and AFL will go from strength-to-strength across the country as they have every decade the past 30 years.

Professionalism starts at the top. It starts with reliability, honesty and consistency. Professional players sign contracts that, once agreed upon, are immediately binding.

A dedicated free agent signing period should be a logical, easy to implement process that eases heartache and stress for all involved, and allows clubs to continue to grow the game.

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