The Parramatta Eels are desperately trying to clear room in the salary cap so the team can compete for NRL premiership points on the auspicious date of the club's next match against the South Sydney Rabbitohs on Friday, May 13.
The focus is firmly on the club's tainted administration after it was revealed on Tuesday that the Eels had exceeded salary cap payments by more than $3 million in three years.
But NRL supremo Todd Greenberg and Head of the NRL Integrity Unit Nick Weeks said they will also now investigate the role played by player agents and players themselves after the club was found to have breached the salary cap in five of the past six seasons.
Melbourne Storm players escaped the worst of the scrutiny back in 2010 when the club had two premierships erased from NRL history after five years of systemic above-the-cap payments. Some players got rich unfairly, yet no one stripped their possessions the way the club was stripped of premierships and points.
This time round, average people who follow the sport feel more scrutiny should be placed on the players themselves. The following are are not the tweets of media commentators. They're average fans.
I fail to see how this is "devastating" for players... They MUST have known this was coming as it was their hands under the table too.#eels— Bill Kirkwood (@ssfc1908) May 3, 2016
My questions is, Are all players innocent in this Eels scandal, if some players were paid under the table, how could they not know? #eels— Carla Sindel (@CarlsCarla) May 3, 2016
Not every fan feels that way. Some steadfastly maintain that the players are the victims here.
"The officials have brought our club into disgrace... The players and the fans are the casualties here. As a fan I can only guess how the players are feeling," wrote a typically sympathetic fan on the Parramatta Eels Facebook site.
So why should players be scrutinised? To answer that, it's worth repeating the three distinct types of cheating at the Eels outlined by Todd Greenberg on Tuesday. They were:
- Paying players undisclosed remuneration from the club's own resources;
- Sourcing third party agreements for players in breach of the salary cap rules;
- Arranging with club suppliers to inflate or issue fictitious invoices to raise money that was to be made available to the players.
How can a player be the recipient of any of these forms of extra income without smelling a rat? The first type in particular should ring alarm bells the size of Semi Radradra's biceps.
“It you’re getting paid cash, then you know that’s shifty,” St George Illawarra player Benji Marshall said on the Fox Sports show NRL 360 on Tuesday night.
“Because straight away you can’t declare cash. You can’t pay any tax on cash. “Everything we get that we make, you have to pay tax on. So straight away that’s a red flag saying something’s wrong there."
Here at the Huffington Post Australia, we wondered just how much rugby league players really know about their own financial position. So we asked an accountant who has managed the financial affairs of major NRL stars.
"I think for sure it depends on the players and their level of savviness," he told us. "It also depends on their relationship with their manager and whether they're comfortable their manager is going to do the right thing."
But could players be oblivious to salary cap rorting -- especially if they're being paid cash?
"If they're getting cash, they know."
Our accountant painted a picture which helps explain why the NRL integrity unit waded through an almost unthinkably large pile of 700,000 documents over the past two months.
"I've been involved in meetings with a club administration that were kind of embarrassing, really."
His inference is that player agents often don't adequately disclose the nature of third party agreements to clubs, who in turn, don't ask the right questions to ensure everything is above deck.
That's because the system itself is a mess. There was an excellent piece in Fairfax Media on Tuesday which explained this well.
"At the heart of the matter is the utterly befuddling mix of ownership and administration models throughout the NRL. At clubs like the Eels, where the Leagues Club board runs the football team, directors spend as much time courting votes for the next election as trying to run a commercial enterprise. Two-year terms means no long-term vision.
The game's leading administrators all consider it a recipe for disaster, a system stuck in the 70s and 80s and better suited to country footy rather than an elite, multi-billion dollar competition. Teams like the Bulldogs run a workable hybrid model, others like Brisbane have no links between church and state.
Even more pressing is the need for the NRL to better educate new chief executives and boards. Parramatta have made the salary cap and third-party agreements sound so perplexing that some of the deals would involve an ICAC investigation."
But the bottom line here is still that it takes two to tangle with the rules. Are Parramatta players victims of a dodgy administration? Undoubtedly. The NRL has told us that.
Could the players have done more to stop it happening? To most rugby league fans not associated with Parramatta Eels, that's a question just as easily answered.