Punishing Cheats – How Much is Too Much?

Rugby League has a problem. It’s one that can be described in five words: Ryan Tandy and Terry Newton.

If you’re not familiar with their stories, here’s a brief round up. Ryan Tandy, a grand final winner and Irish international was recently found dead at his parent’s home after taking an overdose. He was 32. In 2010, Great Britain international Terry Newton, a stalwart of the Super League and a respected, combative hooker was found hanging in his garage. He was 31.

What both Tandy and Newton have in common is they both took their own lives while serving bans from the game. Tandy had been banned for life for his role in a match fixing scandal, while Newton held the dubious distinction of being the first professional sportsman in the UK to test positive for human growth hormone (HGH).

Tough Game for Tough Guys

Rugby League is undoubtedly a tough game, played by real hard men who are phenomenal athletes. But they’re also human and they can make mistakes. So when they’re hit with temptation or suffer from depression or addiction, it’s only natural that some of them will make mistakes. Yes, we want higher standards from our sports heroes, but it’s unrealistic to expect that from every single bloke every single day.

These guys have broken a moral code and have to live with it. But let’s remember, no one was really hurt in what they did initially. As described on Round Eight, Tandy had people calling him a “cheating dog” in his local bar. This is the same guy who is described by Craig Bellamy, his former coach, as “charming” and “an eternal optimist”.

Newton found HGH online after suffering from a string of injuries and hid it from his family so the injections it didn’t raise suspicion. He was a hard man on field, but, according to those who knew him, was the exact opposite off the field. In an attempt to fight back and keep his livelihood, he made a stupid mistake which ultimately ended with him committing suicide.

Ban Them. But What Next?

Not for one moment am I advocating not banning drug cheats or match fixers. Far from it. In many cases I agree with the changes World Anti Doping Association (WADA) are making to increase bans from two to four years for drugs cheats unless they spill the beans about everything and everyone involved in helping them cheat.

But I firmly believe that the sport has a responsibility to the people who play it, their families and the fans to help people who are banned transition from being a full time athlete to being a pariah. As fans we demand that players give everything to the cause for our team. These guys take a pounding that most of us could never dream of, they give their bodies for our entertainment and put everything they can into being the best they can possibly be. They also live a strange existence where everything is organised for them, everyone wants to talk to them and doors are always open for them. Everyone has heard the stories of pro sportsmen being unable to operate washing machines, or work out where to put petrol in the car, and in my experience, there are plenty of athletes who this is true about.

In many ways being a professional athlete is a completely unnatural state. And then the rug is whipped out from underneath the guys and their world ends. Completely.

So when that world that these guys live in unravels, it’s hardly surprising that they have a tough time dealing with it. To give credit to the RFL, they introduced the State of Mind campaign following Newton’s death, which aims to address the issues of mental health within professional sport. But now Tandy has followed a similar path, it raises the issue again.

I’m not pretending to have all the answers. I’m sure the untimely death of an NRL star won’t go unnoticed in the corridors of power at the Rugby League Central. They, we, need to get the balance right between punishing those who break the rules, and looking after those who get spat out of the sausage machine. It’s not easy – be too lenient and it opens the door to widespread cheating, but helping these isn’t a choice anymore, it’s a responsibility.

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