Last month the Canterbury Bulldogs’ 2012 Player of the Year Ben Barba was indefinitely suspended from club duties due to “behavioural issues” relating to his personal life. He was absent from the 2013 NRL season launch which he was due to open as the ‘face of the game’, and Bulldogs’ CEO Todd Greenberg reported to Seven News that it could be anything from “six weeks to six months before he plays again”. Greenberg said that the ‘multitude of issues’ the Dally M medallist faces are not “police matters” but rather breaches of the club’s code of conduct. Barba is dealing with the break-up of his long term relationship with the mother of his two children, amidst mass marketing and media coverage due to his public profile. News Limited reported that Barba has been a part of the Epic Bender Crew (EBC) since December last year; the Shire’s ‘notorious party’ group who “binge their way through the weekends”, and has their initials tattooed on his stomach. They also reported that gambling had become a problem for the player. Former Parramatta star Nathan Hindmarsh confirmed to The Australian that gambling has become “a bit of an addiction” for Barba.
As an ambassador of ANZ Stadium, sponsored by Nike and Fox Sports and touted as the face of the NRL, The Daily Telegraph cited the ‘enormous pressure’ on the 23-year-old player to be publically accountable. Unlike other players, on top of intensive training, Barba must regularly meet with a range of managers including media, football, and marketing as well as the coach and CEO. Gerard Daffy of Tattsbet reported to AAP that the announcement of Barba’s suspension wreaked havoc on NRL premiership betting markets ‘within hours’ of the news breaking. Sportsbet’s Ben Hawes said that Barba’s absence is a “massive blow” and that he “can safely say Canterbury can’t win the competition” [without him].
Red Bull had also selected Barba to be an ambassador of the international brand in an effort to reach a more mainstream market through their first ever sponsorship of a rugby league player. The Sun Herald reported however that such plans have now been put on hold. The mounting commercial pressure on sportspeople to not only perform but be a sporting exemplar can be overwhelming, and as the newspaper suggests, being chosen as the face of rugby league is a “poisoned chalice”.
Rather than terminating his contract, which Greenburg tells The Daily Telegraph would “not help him”, the Bulldogs are committed to Barba becoming a “better footballer and a better person” and have surrounded him with support services including a Sydney psychiatrist to aid personal development and accountability. With the ‘working man’s game’ attracting players from humble origins, stars are often unprepared for the fast transition into a life that is of huge public interest and commercial value. As the proverbial expression goes, prevention is better than cure and as Sunrise News suggests, equipping clubs with stars who rise “beyond comprehension very quickly” to cope with new-found fame is important for mitigating the reputational and financial risks of a public breakdown. With the pressure of corporate sponsorship and a huge fan base being part of the package of elite athleticism, it is important that in their day to day lives, star players are mindful of the reputation of the sport, the values of the sponsors with whom they are aligned and their avid supporters. Canterbury has demonstrated swift risk management in taking action to remove Barba from the football spotlight however this issue is a reminder of the potential for reputational and financial damage when a high profile player behaves badly.