Booze and bets 'beat' drug issue
THE man in charge of the NRL's player welfare and education department says the number of players getting caught up in gambling and alcohol-related issues has fallen significantly in recent years.
Speaking in the wake of Canterbury's decision to stand down 2012 Dally M medallist Ben Barba for his well documented off-field problems, Paul Heptonstall said the Barba situation was another reminder of how vulnerable players were to those type of issues.
"We know there are always going to be issues with players - will always be players who slip through the cracks," Heptonstall said.
"What I do know is players coming in (to the NRL) are now better prepared to deal with a whole range of issues.
"I think the problems are far less than they have been."
The Australian Rugby League Commission has recently been given an extra $1.7 million to expand its welfare and education program, Heptonstall saying that would help the code become a leader in addressing problems encountered by players during and after their careers.
The funding will ensure each club has two full-time welfare and education officers, one focused on welfare issues and one on career development.
"We think that's more than any of the other major sporting codes in Australia," he said.
Barba of course is not the first high-profile player to fall victim to gambling in particular.
Former stars like Nathan Hindmarsh and Steve Price have admitted to being addicted to gambling during their careers, while former Newcastle premiership player Owen Craigie is now a counsellor with Mission Australia after blowing $1.5 million.
Craigie talks at NRL rookie camps about the pitfalls of suddenly coming into a lot of money when young players make the big time.
Heptonstall said he was also pleased at the growing number of present and former players who have put their hands up to offer their advice at rookie camps and other welfare and educational events.
Despite his confidence the NRL was making inroads into pitfalls faced by players, Heptonstall said he believed gambling and alcohol issues were a bigger problem than the performance-enhancing drug concerns raised earlier this month by the Australian Crime Commission.
"I just don't see a big drug culture among players. I wouldn't be surprised if not much comes of that (the ASADA inquiry)," he said.
"But alcohol is there, and gambling is there."
As well as being stood down by the Bulldogs, Barba was also absent from last night's NRL launch where he was to have been the face of the game for the 2013 season, his place taken by Cowboys captain Johnathan Thurston.