Rugby league falling into the lawyers' hands

Dave Hadfield analyses the disturbing implications for the future of the game

Rugby league knew, deep in its heart, that nothing could be quite the same again when it decided in April that Rupert Murdoch's pounds 87m was irresistible.

Some immediate threats of revolution, like the forced mergers of clubs to form new Super League teams, were fought off by sheer weight of public hostility. But an apparently innocuous piece of paper which has come to light this week reveals that the game can hardly be regarded as the master of its own destiny.

Despite the size of the deal with Murdoch's News Corporation, the administrators of the game in Britain have repeatedly insisted that they will retain full autonomy over the way it is run.

It was, however, a fundamental element of the deal that the game here switched to a summer season and the pay-out from News Corporation was also conditional on Great Britain, from March onwards, playing only against Super League opposition at international level.

The new revelation, in a leaked Super League "loyalty" contract, that News Corporation has a finger in the transfer market, will heighten fears over the extent of control by a media organisation.

There are arguments for intervening in the sporting marketplace, in order to produce a more balanced competition. American professional sport achieves this through a draft system, with the weakest having first choice, and rugby league in Australia, even before the current upheaval, has tried various methods of levelling its playing fields - drafts, salary caps and residential qualifications.

British rugby league has always operated a largely untrammelled transfer system, but, dominated as it is to an unhealthy extent by Wigan, it presents a particularly tempting case for treatment.

For a controlling media interest to have the final word on who plays where, however, is a whole new ball-game as far as rugby league and British sport are concerned. Equally disturbing is the way that this provision has never been publicly admitted and evidence of it exists only in a confidential document.

There are other sections of the agreement, signed in return for payments as high as pounds 100,000, that should cause concern. Players, both here and in Australia, where a bidding war between Super League and the ARL has produced even juicier incentives, do not seem to have spent much time studying the small print.

"Christmas comes but once a career," is the way that a cartoonist on one Australian paper has captured the general mood among elite players on both sides of the world.

Many players in Britain will be horrified to discover that another club could want to sign them, their present club could be willing to let them go, they could want to move - but News Corporation's lawyers can say no. However, it is not clear from the contract issued by News Corporation whether players would be free to change clubs without consultation at the end of their contracts.

The doctoring of the system in order to produce the desired structure could go one stage further in Australia, where Super League clubs are likely to be told that they must surrender players in order to get the new Adelaide franchise off the ground.

Clubs in Britain might fret over being told to do something similar, in order to launch, say, Cardiff or Newcastle.

Another clause in the contract commits players here to "co-operate with News and with its group companies in giving interviews and making public appearances in relation to the promotion of Super League."

That appears to grant special access to Sky television - which has exclusive rights to screen Super League games - and to Murdoch's British papers, The Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World, plus any official Super League publications that News decides to launch.

There is a notable absence of any requirement to co-operate with other newspapers or the BBC, whose continued coverage of the game, through the Regal Trophy and Silk Cut Challenge Cup, is under negotiation at the moment.

Ironically, it is my information that Sky have had difficulties enforcing this clause, because some players, no doubt emboldened by the cash swilling around in the game, have expected to be paid for interviews.

Also in the contract is the threat of an injunction, should a player infringe any of its clauses, and the instruction that "you shall keep the provisions of this Agreement confidential and not disclosed except as required by law".

One player, who must remain anonymous, has felt sufficiently concerned about the implications of the whole document to break that clause.

Rugby league must now ponder whether it can live with those implications; whether they are a price in forfeited independence worth paying for a huge investment in the game.

n The new Super League International Board, holding its inaugural meeting in Sydney, has decided to adopt the four rule changes, affecting the play- the-ball, kick-off and scrums, currently being tried out in Britain.

newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn