NRL star 'wasn’t strong enough to say no'
The joke carried a bitter punchline.
"Who's going to be the one to catch coronavirus and stop the game?"
They said it often at Penrith training even before the first two rounds got played.
Everybody knew the stakes. The AFL had lost its bottle and leagues around the world were shutting down and the NRL was powering ahead, one and then two rounds in and determined to go as far as it possibly could before somebody caught the virus and public weight gave the game no choice.
So much rested on the players, and the Penrith players knew that.
It was the backdrop to a whole series of events that began slowly and turned bad.
The game got stopped and Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr got busted breaking the social distancing rules.
Then earlier this week the NRL Integrity Unit upped the penalty on Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary.
Immediately it split the rugby league audience.
About here, Ben Ikin must have taken off his glasses. Ikin transformed from mild-mannered reporter into Superman and went to what might be the core of why boorish behaviour persists in the NRL.
If you cannot handle the pressure of playing in the NRL, he said, then maybe playing in the NRL is not for you.
The subtlety of his message was lost for many.
Ikin simply said that having the tools to play NRL went beyond having just the right physical tools, which is the first talent identified and the most easily rewarded.
Players must also have the mental and emotional capacity to handle it.
Yet players almost always struggle with that notion, believing that talent should be enough. Any emotional stresses attached to the game, they believe, should be removed to clear the way for the player to continue practising his trade.
Yet there is not a job in the country that pays more than half a million dollars a year that does not come with pressure. For some it is public, for some financial, emotional, for some it is.
I have stood beside the surgeon Emily Granger as she pulled the heart out of a man's chest and dropped it in a bin and then kept him alive for more than 40 minutes, a great cavity in his chest as machines blinked around him, before she sewed in a new heart.
Her pressure was the life or death of a man. Not whether she could slot the field goal.
The average salary for heart surgeons, according to payscale, is $205,000. About two-thirds of the average footballer salary. It goes as high as $500,000, much less than the highest paid footballers.
Latrell Mitchell earns more than heart surgeons, more than Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
It is immature to believe it comes without expectation.
More than 80 per cent of the game's gross revenue comes from the two biggest media companies in Australia. The price for that is media interest.
Also forgotten is Ikin was once one of those he wrote about.
He played Origin at 18, still the youngest. But the wonder boy tag followed him and after one too many knee reconstructions all the expectation and disappointment weighed him down.
He simply did not want to deal with it anymore so, at 26, he retired.
He made the choice the boofheads are now skewering him for, for suggesting others might consider.
Plenty on social media came to Ikin's defence. The others, for the same reason you don't give machine guns to monkeys, went off like a scattergun.
Manly backrower Joel Thompson was aghast at what he wrote, despite the story being perfectly reasonable.
"Opinions like this [are] disappointing," he wrote on Twitter.
Thompson was doing what he hates most of the media, which was attack without proper knowledge.
He pointed out his own issues. Playing in the NRL got him the help he needed.
"Shouldn't everyone be given that chance?" he asked.
He later said he failed to read the story and was responding to the headline. Then apologised when he discovered his error.
Other mistakes got made during the week.
I wrote the reason the NRL Integrity Unit doubled down on Cleary's suspension, upping it from a $4000 fine and a week's suspended sentence to $30,000 and two weeks on the sidelines was because the TikTok dance was not actually shot at his home. That it was at one of the girl's places.
It was wrong.
The story was caught and corrected but not before it was online for an hour and hit the first edition.
So I apologise.
Cleary was home. The deception to the Integrity Unit was he left his house to pick up the young girls, then shot the video at home.
Where Cleary went wrong is not an easy one.
The moment the first picture of Addo-Carr and Mitchell appeared on social media it dawned on Cleary that the Penrith punchline could become a reality.
Cleary knew he hid a secret. He knew the same Saturday of the same weekend he also broke the rules.
Was he going to be the man to bring the competition down?
Ivan Cleary learned the next day that Nathan and housemate Tyrone May had a small party at their house.
"What are you doing?" he said to his son.
There is no simple answer. Young men, opportunity and boredom, and who'd ever find out, right?
Nathan, in the end, just wasn't strong enough to say no.
All weekend Cleary watched the backlash against Addo-Carr and Mitchell. He heard the backlash, the comments from politicians, the disappointment from the NRL.
There was a fear that another incident might shut the resumption down before it began.
Cleary feared he was that incident.
Cleary did not tell his father there was more. Who is also his coach.
The reason why is obvious now but it shows the distress he was in. Where does he turn?
He was in a full panic.
Hiding a secret, and then a lie, hoping it would go away.
Here is the daring of young men.
Their personality is to take the risk. To take the challenge and find a way to make it work.
They have an in-built optimism that makes them believe it will all turn out okay. It is common in all high achievers.
Ivan Cleary has a sympathetic acceptance of their risk-taking mentality, and not just for his son.
Coaches slowly go crazy if they don't and quickly out the door if they do.
The first rule of coaching is don't sack the rent.
Cleary has a reputation as a thinker. Ivan the Cerebral.
He believes in the science that says the young male brain is not fully matured until it is 25-years-old so mistakes are to be expected.
So he is forgiving of young men's mistakes.
But that is also too simple.
No group of young men are as well educated or have as high a price to pay for their mistakes as young NRL players.
Teenage jockeys apprenticed to trainers, young basketballers, young soccer players, young Olympians … none of them seem to make the same errors at the same frequency as young NRL stars, at least until wealth and adulation come their way.
NRL clubs seem unwilling to change it because a player, who believes he is too harshly penalised, might take his talent to another of the 15 clubs who will gladly accept them.
It happens every year.
So they learn the hard way. Somebody else must wield the stick, either through punishment or shame, as happened this week.
Originally published as Kent: Cleary wasn't strong enough to say no