Sometimes it seems as if scandal is so endemic to Rugby League that the best way to profile players is in terms of how they react to it. While there are players who manage to maintain pretty clean reputations off the field, there’s hardly anyone who hasn’t done something a bit dirty during the game – the game almost calls for it – just as there’s hardly a player who hasn’t had to justify some bit of gameplay, if only to themselves. Over the last couple of years, that’s all been enhanced by the escalating synergy between NRL and social media, as players have taken to Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and a variety of other platforms to bond with their family, teammates and fans. In fact, you could say that the recent wave of social media has been more favourable to NRL exposure than any other, just because League players tend to be less wordy than their cousins in AFL, Rugby and A-League. While there are some verbose voices in League, they tend to be in the minority, or to be very consciously cultivated on programs like The Footy Show. In part, that’s because Rugby players, in particular, have tended to be drawn from more private-school, university and corporate backgrounds, but it’s also because all three of the other big football codes have more extensive management resources at their disposal, allowing them to massage even the most reticent, antisocial players into momentary speechmakers. Someone like Kurtley Beale would never have bounced back as quickly in the NRL.
At the same time, Rugby League is a much more intensive physical sport than any other major football code, which isn’t to say that it’s not cerebral, but that it’s so expressed in and through the body that commentary can often feel a bit redundant or even ridiculous. And recent social media platforms tend to function in the same way: they’re not about words, but the kind of body-to-body proximity you feel from the kinds of visual language that abounds on Instagram in particular, the social media outlet of choice for League players. Even on Twitter, NRL players have embraced the visual language of emoticons, emojis and good old-fashioned photo attachments more than any other football code, explicating it for the visual medium that it really is. As The Footy Show, The Matty Johns Show and even Fox Sports start to feel more and more like relics of twentieth-century media, platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr feel more and more like the future of Rugby League sociability. Certainly, podcasts, Reddit communities and Instagram feeds are starting to give television a run for its money when it comes to the game, which is perhaps what has motivated the recent television deal allowing NRL fans to watch four free-to-air games a week – half of each round – live on Channel 9 from 2018 onwards.
If social media have drawn NRL sociability into greater relief, however, it’s also tended to expose scandals that may have remained invisible in the past – and to induce scandals that may have never occurred. Footy players are not renowned for having great filters – that’s often what makes them entertaining on the field – and good social media use is absolutely dependent on having a good filter, even or especially when you’re trying to give an impression of ummediated immediacy. If you wanted to get a sense of who the most volatile NRL players have been over the last couple of years, you’d only have to check out those stars who’ve lost it on social media: Issac Luke, Todd Carney, Joel Monaghan, Blake Ferguson and, above all, Josh Dugan. And while Dugan may not have behaved the most outrageously on social media, his notorious photograph culminated a strain of antisocial, aggressive and unsportsmanlike behaviour that seemed somewhat endemic of Raiders culture at the time. For a while there, the Green Machine felt like the quintessential social media presence, perhaps because Canberra’s peripheral place in the game – both geographically and in terms of their uncertain reputation – produced the kind of desperation to get back to the heart of things that so often drives social media hyperactivity. Not only did Dugan’s photograph summarise that moment as well, but – perhaps most importantly – it was the first great NRL scandal to occur on the latest wave of social media, drawing attention to the risks and thrills of Instagram as a platform as much as Dugan’s own fall from grace within the NRL.
For one thing, the photograph was actually taken on Dugan’s own rooftop. While the photographs of Monaghan and Carney might have been more lewd in their content, they occurred against fairly anonymous backdrops. Yet there was something infinitely more titillating in the prospect offered by Dugan’s snapshot: an intimate vision of an intimate part of his house, accessible only to the owner and his friends, and yet a panoramic vision of Canberra as well, stretching away in the distance. In a single blurry drunken snapshot, it summarised the two seductions of social media: intimate access to a normally remote celebrity and panoramic access to a wider cultural space impossible in the physical world alone. On top of that, Dugan was right up against the camera, in such extreme close-up that he had a tactile presence as much as a visual presence. Where Monaghan and Carney were obviously photographed in highly staged tableaux, there was no doubt here that Dugan was taking a selfie, so close to the camera that he could have almost been pressing the trigger with his chin. While NRL players have an enormous physical presence on the field, it’s rare for the public to get this close to one. Even high-def interview footage after the game doesn’t make you feel as close to a living, breathing body as Dugan’s spiteful selfie. The fact that the photograph was uploaded in real time – with other Tweeters and the wider media starting to respond while Dugan was actually still on the roof – only made that sense of uncanny closer-than-closeness all the more pronounced.
All that was intensified by the presence of Blake Ferguson in the background. While Ferguson didn’t actually take the photograph, or post it, he was clearly a large part of the drunken antics that preceded it, while he just as clearly didn’t do much to prevent Dugan from uploading it in the first place. Lying some way behind Dugan, his relative size clarifies just how close Dugan is to the photograph, in a kind of perfect summary of the unique fullback-wing synergy they enjoyed at the Raiders, with Dugan the driving force and Ferguson as his right-hand man. Off the field – as this photograph makes so clear – that turned Ferguson into Dugan’s enabler, turning Dugan himself in turn into the worst kind of version of the fullback personality, a fullback gone awry and sent off into a crazy, self-destructive spin. For an instant, on that roof, Dugan and Ferguson seemed to personify a Raiders outfit in crisis, with Ferguson’s drunken nod of approval even more aggressive and abrasive, in its way, than Dugan’s more conventional middle-finger.
Still, that finger is the key part of the photograph as well. While footy stars may use social media to socialise, a key part of League sociability is aggression, with old friends like Sonny Bill Williams and Willie Mason seeming to celebrate their histories with the most brutal tackles and charges they can possibly muster. Sometimes the aggro is theatrical or ceremonial, sometimes it’s a way of relating to each other in a game where sensitivity and tact are seen as suspicious, and sometimes it’s simply a necessary outlet for the week-in-week-out drama that is NRL. In the light of the recent decision to stand down Robbie Farah from Wests Tigers we’ve seen a bit of each kind of social media aggression, often in the same tweet or from the same Instagram user. At the same time, there’s something a bit disturbing – if again, titillating – when that aggression spills over into the fanbase. On the one hand, it’s violating to see a footy player take it out on a NRL fan – even a fan who’s determined to troll them as much as possible – but there’s also something about the way it integrates the fan into the online life of NRL that’s a bit fascinating for other fans to watch and experience vicariously.
And that was the case with Dugan’s fatal gesture. While the finger and accompanying sledge was totally unprofessional, it was also a bit like seeing a footy bystander suddenly and viscerally dumped into the middle of one of the most brutal tackles of the year. Redirecting all the energy he brings to his role as fullback out to the social media universe, Dugan momentarily opened up the true energy of the game to the average footy fan, an energy that’s curiously sociable and antisocial at the same time, aggressive but also weirdly inclusive in its aggression. Given how those contradictions continue to plague the NRL – they’re pretty much the reason for its Integrity Committee – it was no surprise that the Raiders fullback was stood down and forced to undergo a variety of different sensitivity and social media programs.
To make matters worse, Dugan had never actually showed this level of chutzpah while playing for Canberra. Sure, he had what it takes to be a super fullback, but he was quite precious about injury and the risk of injury as well – at least for a player in his position – meaning that we never got a real chance to see him fulfil his potential in all its glory. Until that photograph. Because the tragic irony here was that Dugan only displayed his true fullback audacity with the very gesture that precluded him growing into the role in Canberra. Given that he’d been anxious to leave the club for some time, cynics speculated that the social media outrage was a gamble to force Canberra’s hand. While that may be true, my sense is more that Dugan is the kind of fullback who had to grow into his position by shedding his skin, seeing how far he could go to undermine himself in order to get a sense of how great his footy powers really are. More so than any other code, NRL players tend to be self-destructive, and part of the ingenuity of a great Rugby League player is how they manage to use that to their advantage. With a player like Dugan, you could truly say that he has managed to be self-destructive in the most creative way. Even if that Instagram shot was staged, it was so brilliant in its spontaneity that it might as well have been spontaneous.
And since then Dugan’s star has continued to soar. While I’ll spend another post on his post-Raiders career, it’s amazing how he’s managed to make a name for himself with both the Dragons and the Blues, opening himself up for captaincy considerations in both outfits. If he was only half a fullback before – if not a halfback – he’s grown into one of the game’s great fullbacks, twisting and contorting himself around the Steeden with a slippery angularity that also makes him one of the most photogenic players, especially when it comes to Origin. In that respect, he makes for an interesting contrast to Ferguson, who’s also had his own rehabilitation story, but in a different way. Where Ferguson has been backed by a publicity machine that includes Anthony Mundine and the marketing arm of the Roosters, Dugan seems genuinely sorry, and anxious to make a name for himself again in the game in his own merits. While the Dragons’ longevity and solidity can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, they often function as a refuge for players – think Benji Marshall or Jamie Soward – who are determined to restore their career in a dedicated, concerted way. If Dugan was a half-hearted Raider, then, he’s a quintessential Dragon, as well as a Blues cornerstone, all of which I’ll discuss a bit more in the next part of this post.