The NRL’s Integrity Unit continues to be maddeningly and bafflingly inconsistent

What are the NRL doing with the $45,000 (and counting) they received in fines last week? I reckon they should give the money to Dylan Napa.

Seems every time there’s an off-field incident in rugby league, the governing body find new ways to be inconsistent.

When we first went into COVID lockdown, Latrell Mitchell, Josh Addo-Carr and Nathan Cleary got busted for flaunting social-distancing rules.

The punishments for the former two were $50,000 fines, while Cleary was whacked with ten grand – although 60 per cent of all three were suspended.

The trio also received one-match bans, with that also suspended for the rest of the year.

Cleary’s punishment shifted as the full extent of his breach was made public and I wrote at the time he received a manifestly unfair punishment – just two weeks on the sidelines – for lying to the Integrity Unit when compared to the four weeks Payne Haas copped for essentially the same misdemeanour.

But back to the fines meted out to the three players who failed to stick to social distancing, Peter V’landys said of the punishment at the time, “The next one will be harsher. We’ve given them the benefit of the doubt in this instance.”

So late last week, as coaches, players and support staff left, right and centre failed to respect the integrity of the bubble, what “harsher” penalty did the NRL hand down?

A $20,000 fine to Souths coach Wayne Bennett, a $10,000 fine to Dragons prop Paul Vaughan and $5000 to each of Allan Langer, Ryan Whitley and Blake Duncan, who are support staff at the Broncos.

The fines are to be paid in full – no suspensions this time – but how is that a reasonable reaction after Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr paid $20,000 each and still have a further $30,000 hanging over them for the rest of the year?

Acting NRL CEO Andrew Abdo said when handing down the original punishments back in April that matters needed “to be handled on individual merits”, which is fair enough.

So how come Wayne Bennett – who helped create the rules regarding rugby league’s bubble – ends up with a total financial sanction equal to that of the Souths and Storm players’ unsuspended amount?

For the record, the guns and motorbikes in Mitchell and Addo-Carr’s cases were not noted in the NRL’s official media release regarding the sanctions, which instead said the players “have each shown a blatant disregard for public health orders, guidelines and advice and in doing so have brought significant reputational damage to the NRL.”

Bennett has also shown blatant disregard and brought about significant reputational damage – he’s arguably the elder statesman of the game, yet can’t stick to rules he helped create?

And he admitted his lunch at Grappa wasn’t the only time he went outside the bubble. How have they let that go without further investigation?

Last time out, the NRL preached harsher penalties handled on individual merits. Bennett has admitted to ignoring the rules he helped form on multiple occasions. As a minimum penalty he should have copped the full $50,000 handed down to Mitchell and Addo-Carr, and been suspended from coaching for two weeks.

Instead, all financial penalties handed down for last week’s indiscretions are lighter than the high watermark set by the first incidents.

What’s more, none of the latest lot of social-distancing flaunters are technically being suspended for games. Granted, they aren’t allowed in their teams’ bubbles until they have undergone a fortnight of isolation and returned negative tests for coronavirus, but that’s a health measure.

By comparison, Cleary missed two games as punishment and had six Dally M points stripped from his tally, because players lose three points per game missed for suspension.

Vaughan is no threat of claiming the game’s most prestigious individual award but he isn’t losing points, because technically he isn’t suspended. Likewise, Bennett has been coaching his team via Zoom because he’s on COVID hold – he hasn’t been suspended.

If I was Mitchell or Addo-Carr, I’d be filthy on this outcome. What they did was stupid, sure, but they were the first ones caught and their punishments were supposed to be a warning shot: “If we do this to the first two, just imagine what we’ll do to anyone dumb enough to do it after them.”

And now we know what happens to those dumb enough to breach the bubble – smaller fines and no suspension.

So what’s all this got to do with Dylan Napa?

Dylan Napa

So, does someone owe Dylan Napa an apology? (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

It’s essentially been forgotten in the midst of all the drama in Brisbane – Darius Boyd quitting the leadership group, Anthony Seibold now in his own two-week exile after breaching the bubble (albeit with his employers’ blessing), Tevita Pangai Jr also busting the bubble to be at a bikie-barber shop, the aforementioned trio of support staff copping fines for hitting up the Caxton Hotel – but the big story out of the Broncos early last week looked like being Kotoni Staggs.

The young centre was caught up in a sex-tape scandal, with Queensland police having since charged a woman for distributing the footage.

I’m going to be crystal clear about this: Staggs has been the victim of a crime. He obviously deserves no punishment from the NRL after what must have been a mortifying week for a young man.

So how come early last year, when footage of Dylan Napa involved in various sex acts were leaked to the public, the Bulldogs prop was slapped with a huge fine?

Specifically, Napa lost ten per cent of his 2019 wages – somewhere in the vicinity of $60,000 – after a number of “lewd videos” were made public.

“It was decided not to suspend him because this is an historical incident with the videos dating back five years and due to the player’s incorrect assumption that the material would not reach a broader audience,” the NRL said when announcing his sanction.

“However the NRL has warned that any video damaging to the game which is filmed and date stamped from today will incur significant penalties, including suspension.”

Napa was a willing participant in at least one of the videos, but then so was Staggs. Neither of them wanted the footage in the public domain.

So how can the NRL say one bloke is a dickhead who deserves to lose ten per cent of his livelihood for the year, while the other is a victim?

Nathan Cleary passes the ball

And what about Nathan Cleary? (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying Staggs deserves any kind of punishment. Of course he doesn’t. But Napa was a victim as well, primarily of timing, because his videos came out during the NRL’s 2019 summer of hell.

He did some weird shit on some tapes but didn’t ever intend for it to be made public – as Kane Evans, who appeared in one of the Napa videos, told AAP last February, “If we knew it was going to get leaked, no one would make those videos.”

It’s time the Integrity Unit start acting with, y’know, integrity. Consistency in punishment would help with that, as would making amends for past mistakes.

They’ve got a fresh injection of at least $45,000 coming into the coffers – probably more given we are yet to discover what Pangai and Newcastle duo Starford To’a and Simi Sasagi will cop for breaching social distancing rules.

The Integrity Unit could do worse than reimburse Dylan Napa for the unnecessary and inconsistent penalty he received after he was the victim of a crime.

But more importantly, the people supposedly looking after the comp’s off-field integrity could start drawing up a framework for how they punish those who bring the game into disrepute.

Because at the moment the whole thing is a crap-shoot and the ongoing ‘line in the sand’ moments are a convenient excuse for the fact there is zero consistency.

And you can’t preach integrity if you’re consistently inconsistent.