It's pretty rare to pick up a newspaper these days and find positive articles written about the NRL. Actually, it's pretty rare to pick up a newspaper these days at all. And that might be a precursor to the behaviour exhibited to some who cover the game.

From speculation that drives real people from their rugby league livelihoods, to relentless attacks on referees and officials, there's little more that generates content and engagement than controversy and innuendo.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll be acutely aware that the Rugby League Players' Association (RLPA) and the NRL are currently at loggerheads (see also: stalemate) over amendments to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

Lately, the RLPA has been the prime target of media figures who are normally zoned in on heaping scrutiny on players, referees, coaches and club boardrooms.

Fortunately for the NRL, the supposedly more rigid of the two parties, the CBA is hardly a sexy topic, and the average fan is generally satiated by a headline or two, unmotivated to delve deeper. Trawling through the endless articles, tweets, videos and podcasts discussing the RLPA vs the NRL, a common narrative pushed is that the whole saga is 'boring'.

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The RLPA is currently dissatisfied at how the NRL abruptly adopted a 'take it or leave it' position and departed from the negotiations table which the two parties have been at for nearly two years.

Clint Newton, head of the RLPA, describes how after 20 months of discussions with the NRL and their appointed mediator/s, they tabled a proposal. That's when communications broke down.

"Whenever one party in a two-party negotiation doesn't want to negotiate anymore, this will go on and on. Our code does not have a long-form CBA in place," said Newton on Triple M.

While it's been rabidly reported that the RLPA are greedily demanding over 100 pocket-lining additions to the CBA, the reality is that those 100 points of contention are actually NRL-imposed amendments to the RLPA's proposal, and they've classified them as 'non-negotiable'.

For all of the noise from broadcasters and journalists about 'getting in a room and getting it done', it must be acknowledged that the NRL has refused to engage a fresh independent mediator, instead preferring the presence of one of their own previously-appointed mediators in Hugh Marks or Brett Clegg.

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Interestingly, both independent mediators who were enlisted have potential conflicts of interest. Hugh Marks was the former Chief Executive of Nine Entertainment co. and was the boss as the NRL broadcasting deal was being finalised, while Brett Clegg was the Managing Director of Publishing at News Corporation and boss of the Australian Financial Review until only recently.

Notably, the NRL's mammoth five-year $2bn broadcasting deal is with Channel Nine, Fox Sports (owned by Foxtel and controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation), as well as Sky Sports New Zealand.

As Brent Read points out, the NRL is hesitant to engage a mediator who would come into this without previous interest in negotiations in the game. But how can the RLPA expect to have true independence from either mediator, considering they were both highly involved with the two leading broadcasting entities that fund the NRL and have unrivalled access to players and their data?

The RLPA is not technically a union, in that the players do not pay a membership fee to be affiliated with it. The money to fund the RLPA is actually a voluntary forfeiture from every club's salary cap to the current tune of $100,000 per club.

From the songbook of the media, that translates to 'the NRL funds the RLPA', but that's somewhat of a gaslighting statement. And as the RLPA is not a 'union', players have not opted in or out and therefore have autonomy over their own actions: ie they can choose whether or not to participate in any coordinated protest.

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So the RLPA has been fighting for their voice to be heard, in the vacuum created by the departure of the NRL from negotiations. The NRL are refusing to re-enter negotiations unless they can select their preferred media-affiliated mediators, while the RLPA are refusing to accept the 100 'take it or leave it' amendments to their proposal.

In what most fans would describe as 'mild' protest to spark wider conversation and awareness, the RLPA, after a unanimous vote from senior players and delegates, imposed a partial (game day only) media blackout, and a single game where players covered the NRL logo with tape.

The nuclear-level outrage from Nine and NewsCorp-employed figures who depend on the constant cycle of content generation from players has been absorbing. The pearl-clutching about how this was an 'attack on the fans' has been fascinating.

Former player Gorden Tallis' explosive opposition to the RLPA and seemingly personal gripe with Clint Newton has been possibly the most confounding, as Newton pointed out on an interview on Triple M, Gorden was one of those leading the revolt against the NRL back in 2003 when the first CBA was won, enshrining a minimum wage and insurances for players, as well as advancements in well-being and education, preparing players for lives beyond the footy field.

And despite the irony of the pile-on generating endless hours of content, a number of high-profile figures including Tallis, James Hooper, Brian Fletcher, Matthew Thompson and Danny Weidler have publicly stated that they are not 'completely across' the RLPA's concerns.

The FAQs of the CBA dispute can be read on the RLPA website and have been published for some time. But to summarise, here they are again:

  1. The RLPA have not asked for more money since 2022 and are not opposed to expansion;
  2. The RLPA is against additional fixtures being implemented without consultation;
  3. The NRL's collection and storage of player data does not comply with privacy laws;
  4. The CBA is based on a revenue share model, but the NRL has endeavoured to minimise its financial reporting obligations;
  5. The NRL believes that international player payments should come out of the existing pot of broadcasting money as it forfeited the rights to broadcast these matches. The RLPA believes the payments should come from from revenue generated by the games;
  6. While there has been an increase in the salary cap, the NRL has also proposed a reduction to minimum salaries;
  7. The NRL has attempted to impose limitations on the RLPA's ability to support players in integrity-related matters;
  8. The NRL wants Representative Injury Insurance (a club benefit) to be paid from players' money;
  9. The NRL wants to reduce its obligations to consult with the RLPA on matters that affect players;
  10. The NRL wants to limit the funding the RLPA has to function despite an increased number of teams and players;
  11. The NRL wants to have more control over where the RLPA allocates money, and it wants to maintain the existing restriction over the RLPA having commercial partners.

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Often during this saga we have seen media outlets trying to frame the entire debacle as solely focused on player salaries. So often the conversation quickly becomes about the game's highest paid players, and how they're 'getting paid to live out their dreams'.

Paul Crawley described how the average working-class fans out there would be thinking the players are spoiled. But it's a strawman argument: an NRL player is a professional who faces enormous risk each time they step onto the field (see: Wally Lewis and his CTE diagnosis), and they forfeit any rights to privacy and open themselves up to abuse every single week, whether it be at the games, on social media or at the hands of the broadcasters who pay to publicise them.

Increasing player protections, rights and salaries does not in any way, negatively or positively, affect the wages of the ordinary Australian worker in any industry.

The average length of an NRL player's career is 43 games. Simon Dwyer and Taniela Tuiaki would go to some lengths to talk about that.

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Everyone from Joel Caine to Karl Stefanovic to Phil Gould to Ben Dobbin has lined up to throw shade on a greedy RLPA, and a 'power-hungry' Clint Newton.

And a common red herring dropped into the media-sphere is the idea that the players have no idea what all of this hoo-haa is about.

"If you went and asked the players, 90% of them wouldn't know." says Gorden Tallis.

David Riccio laments, "The players don't even understand themselves. I say this with experience because it's my job to talk to players. I talk to 'a lot of them, every day'."

Peter V'Landys continues, "I have spoken to a number of players and none of them know what this issue is all about. None of them."

Yet each club has its senior delegates, the RLPA has its points clearly published on its website, not a single player has chosen to go against the RLPA's protests, and the game's Eighth Immortal Andrew Johns says that he sees even more solidarity now than he did back in 2003.

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"Clint Newton has been painted as the villain in all of this. He's just doing his job. It's nothing about money. It's all about decision making and having a seat at the table. Last year Junior Paulo played 36 games in the front row and the NRL want to add two more games to the schedule without consulting the players," Johns said.

Many ardent opponents of the RLPA have said that their actions have been pointless, but in the same breath have labelled the protests as 'hurting the fans and the game', desperately fueled by greed.

The NRL and the RLPA will eventually get this done. The RLPA is not a union, and as such cannot simply call in the Industrial Relations Commission as NSW Rail workers did in their feud with the NSW Government.

But two things are necessary: a mediator must be truly independent; and self-important foghorns of the game need to quit grandstanding for their employers, for the good of the game.

Rugby League is a profession where the highs are dizzying and the lows are soul-destroying. You'd be hard-pressed finding a player who didn't understand or agree with that.