The Australian Rugby League Commission is currently considering standing down players who face criminal charges – and the first to be affected would be Dragons star Jack de Belin. The issue is that de Belin has pleaded not guilty to a very serious charge of aggravated sexual assault, and he is entitled to the presumption of innocence. At the same time, it is damaging to the NRL brand if he plays – particularly if he is found guilty.
This situation is handled differently by the governing bodies of various sports around the country. The AFL have the same policy as the current NRL standard – that is, allowed to play until found guilty. The Australian Olympic Committee, meanwhile, suspends athletes who are charged with serious offences.
The purpose of the NRL not holding any investigations or banning players is to preserve the player’s right to silence and avoid self-incrimination before the trial. When they acted on individual allegations in the past (as they did when Brett Stewart and Hazeem El Masri were charged with separate sexual assaults) the players were found not guilty and, in Stewart’s case at least, the NRL’s process went under a heavy cloud as public opinion swung behind the maligned player.
Many professional bodies do suspend membership when someone is under a cloud. For example, doctors have their registration suspended when they are facing criminal charges, while a teacher facing sexual assault allegations would also be stood down. An NRL player, however, is not held in the same trust by the public as these professions.
De Belin is not the only player facing criminal charges after an off season from Hell for the NRL. Dylan Walker, from the Manly Sea Eagles, is charged with assaulting his partner, as is Ben Barba. Scott Bolton has pled guilty to common assault. Barba has been sacked and banned from the NRL, but his assault was caught on camera. Walker’s situation is complicated, because his partner has withdrawn the charges but police still have her initial statement. The NRL still need to decide what to do about Bolton as well.
The ARLC will decide whether or not to change their protocols in the next few weeks, which will decide de Belin’s immediate playing future. Even if he is stood down he will still be paid, so the commission will need to figure out how to work this with the salary cap as well. If he is found guilty he will go to prison for a long time, so it will be too late for the NRL to act then.