Fallen footy heroes overshadow titans that never drop the ball  


May 20, 2009  


We have been reminded, not that we needed it, of how hard it is to find suitable role models for our young men to celebrate. Last week, what was on display was plain ugly. The fallout from the Four Corners revelations overshadowed an irresistible Australian story that should serve as a beacon of light to teenage boys, who at times struggle with their identity as they try to grasp the opportunities to leave their mark. 

On Friday Hazem El Masri played his 300th first-grade match in the National Rugby League. A migrant from Lebanon, a Muslim, someone who grasped the opportunities of Australian education and used them to better himself. An ambassador for tolerance and cultural understanding. Someone who works to give back to the community that has given him so much. 

El Masri's achievement was a timely reminder that all is not lost for the notion of sportsmen as role models, in particular the many sportsmen who serve as crucial mentors for young men finding their way through the world. 

In recent months, Australian football of various codes seems to have been rocked by crisis after crisis - from group sex to allegations of underage sex to assault and public urination. The Cronulla Sharks affair is just one of a number of episodes that would understandably lead many to the view that football codes, and rugby league in particular, are a lost cause when it comes to providing good examples of how to conduct oneself. 

I have to confess I'm not much of a rugby league fan. I'm more your AFL sort of guy. But I know how much young people in my community look up to their footy heroes. I know how important rugby league players are as role models for young people in western Sydney. 

In addition to the traumatic consequences for the young woman at the centre of the scandal, one of the many sad things about the Matthew Johns incident (along with all the other sordid affairs that all football codes have managed to throw up in recent months) is that it gives all footballers a bad name. 

Hazem El Masri may be the most high profile good guy in rugby league, but he's not alone. Take Corey Payne. A few weeks ago I wrote a column about the importance of making sure students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have the chance to get into university. I wrote about the importance of those of us who came from such a background talking about our higher education experiences so as to provide examples to follow for disadvantaged kids who may think it is all too hard. 

I received scores of emails in response, many from people who shared similar stories and offered their help for programs that encourage people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university. 

Out of all the emails, one stood out immediately. It was Corey Payne's. He has played 70 NRL games for both the St George Illawarra Dragons, and now, the Wests Tigers. He went to public primary and high schools in the Fairfield area. He has a bachelor of commerce degree and is now doing his masters degree. 

He, too, finds ways of giving back to the community and seeks no publicity or kudos for doing so. His unmistakeable genuineness and passion seeped through the email. 

There are other good stories to tell, like that of Western Australia's David Wirrpanda, the West Coast Eagles AFL star, who has been instrumental in programs to encourage healthy life choices by indigenous children. 

Plenty has been written about the problems in our sporting codes. In many cases there is too much money for people who have too much time to get into trouble. And it's hard to overcome the conclusion that there is an utterly unacceptable culture of misogyny and arrogance. 

Behaviour like that which we have heard so much about over the past week not only affects those involved, it means the good stories of sport struggle to get any traction. 

But we can't give up on our sports stars, they are too important. And we shouldn't. There are plenty of positive stories to tell. One of the reasons I'm excited about the prospect of a new AFL team for western Sydney is the added pool of role models it will bring to an area that, like all areas, needs them. 

As we rightly condemn the likes of Matthew Johns, let us not forget that there are players like Hazem El Masri and Corey Payne - role models too good to ignore. 

Chris Bowen is the federal Assistant Treasurer and the member for Prospect. 


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