Topine vs Bulldogs an important case for NRL and players – wrestling punishment shouldn’t be tolerated in a ‘workplace’


The Jackson Topine lawsuit raises issues of significant importance for player welfare and the duty of care owed to players by NRL clubs.

In short, Topine alleges that he was subjected to humiliating “corporal punishment” for being late to training with the Bulldogs, and as a result has been unable to play since that incident last July.

More specifically, Topine claims he was forced to wrestle 30 or more of his teammates and suffered a “psychiatric injury” as a result of the incident.

Only those present at the gymnasium at Smeaton Range can comment on what occurred, but that hasn’t stopped prominent commentators such as Braith Anasta and Paul Kent (who were not present and are not lawyers) from labelling the lawsuit as “crazy” and extraordinarily urging the NRL to intervene in the civil lawsuit between Topine and the Bulldogs.

As the matter is before the courts, it does little good for the NRL commentariat to speculate on the specific facts, or to offer ill conceived remarks on the legal niceties of the action.

Nonetheless, a few general observations can be made on the evolving nature of the duties owed by employers to workers as it applies to the NRL.

Yes, an NRL player is an employee and a club is an employer. We are reminded of this regularly in the context of contractual disputes and in other contexts, and so it is the case in relation to the duty of care.

If a worker late to any other workplace was subjected to a ritual flogging (as alleged) there would undoubtedly be a lawsuit.

It’s hard to imagine a NRLW player late to training being required to wrestle 30 of her teammates. There is nothing special about professional sport and the standards of punctuality or discipline expected of players that would not also extend to many other professional roles.

Any number of jobs require punctuality, adherence to directions and high standards of compliance. If a soldier is late to a post, a security guard late to a shift, or a scrub nurse or safety officer on a mining site late to work, there are more significant consequences than perhaps not performing at 100% on the weekend.

It’s unimaginable that any of these workers would be forced to endure a physical ordeal as a punishment for lack of punctuality.

If the allegations are true, we are not talking about extra push-ups or a few laps around the oval or cleaning the changeroom after training. There is a line here, but lines can be crossed.

Furthermore, boarding house floggings and military bastardisation rituals, both commonplace in past decades have long been eliminated. The same “high standards/team reliance” justifications were also used for these antiquated and outlawed forms of discipline instillation.

The NRL is a workplace like all others. Concussion protocols, player welfare requirements, social media and drug and alcohol policies are all workplace features.

Commentators who continue to argue that rugby league operates outside the laws on the land, on issues such as sledging, foul play and the issues raised by Topine lawsuit are out of touch with the sensible mainstream. They play to an audience of faux tough guys and diminish public support for the game.

The NSW Supreme Court will ultimately determine the Topine case based on the facts and direct witness evidence.

Based on the prevailing case law, the court is very unlikely to apply a different standard to the NRL.

Nor is the court likely to accept an argument that NRL players may be sanctioned through extreme physical ordeals for a lack of punctuality, or other discipline breaches, because rugby league operates in a different legal or moral universe to other employment environments.

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