Interview: Power and the Passion
Unions: Tackling the Heavy Hitters
Industrial: Seeing the Forest For The Wood
Housing: Home Truths
International: Boycott Busters
Economics: Ideology and Free Trade
History: Long Shadow of a Forgotten Man
Review: Chewing the Fat
Poetry: Dear John
The Locker Room
A Place To Call Home
Tackling the Heavy Hitters
Tony Butterfield spent 17 graded years as a no-frills front rower, the sort who would put up his hand for another charge into massed defences, any time, any place.
He was the type of footballer whose sheer determination could drive opponents, and their cheer squads, to distraction. It's a fair bet that NRL supremo David Gallop knows exactly how they felt.
Butterfield, the prop with a business degree, and Gallop, the corporate lawyer, have been squaring off over whether or not professional footballers should be able to bargain collectively.
Their best efforts are being crystalised into a compromise document to go before 30 players - two delegates from each NRL club - on July 13.
Irrespective of how they vote, Butterfield is confident that when their team-mates gather next year they will be covered by rugby league's first collective agreement.
"We've drafted a Heads of Agreement to the point where we will recommend it to the players," Butterfield says.
"If the delegates give it the thumbs-up we will send it to all members for a majority vote. If they don't we'll be forced to ask the Commission to intervene."
Butterfield is under no illusions. While issues like minimum payments and funding for welfare and education have been addressed, confidentiality concerns, to do with salary cap audits, will cause debate.
Nothing the big fellow did in his 300-plus games with Penrith and Newcastle prepared him for the difficulty of trying to get up a collective organisation against the combined wills of the NRL and some of its media partners.
The vehemence with which he and his organisation have been attacked by commentators like Ray Hadley, Rebecca Wilson, Phil Gould and the late, Peter Frilingos sat him on his backside like blindside hits.
Until, that was, he realised it was all part of the employers' game plan.
"Rugby league is a rough game but not as rough as this one," he said. "At first, some of the things they said really affected me and my family.
"When you think you are working your arse off for the players, and the game you love, and pick up the paper and read all sorts of allegations, you do wonder.
"Probably, though, in the end, it helped bring the players together because they could see an agenda was being run."
Butterfield had barely peeled off his shirt, after leading the Knights to within one game of the 2000 grand final, than he was into his new career.
Auckland's woeful Warriors had turned up their toes and 30 professional footballers found themselves without an employer to honour their contracts, or an organisation to argue their case.
"When I started out I intended to give it a year or so, to get the Players Association moving, and then to move on.
"I didn't think it would be too difficult," he said. "Lots of guys were urging me to do it and, at the peak of the Super League war, Chris Johns had promised the players would have their own association.
"Looking back, it was just salesmanship. I was a bit naive and took too much on face value. It was a steep learning curve.
"We were new at this and it didn't take us long to understand that when we didn't know something the best bet was to ask someone who did."
Joining the Labor Council, he says, was the one of the best moves the players made.
The pressure from the commentariat, though, became so hot that he even questioned whether he should attend an MUA fundraiser for people who had lost their lives in the Bali terrorist atrocity.
Butterfield did and found resolute allies in MUA secretary Paddy Crumlin and legal man, Tony Levin.
"A commercial law firm would have charged us a hundred grand for the advice Tony, my brother Grant, and Clinton Mohr provided for a couple of schooners because they love rugby league and believe in what they do," Butterfield said.
After his wife, Kirsten, though, his biggest allies were the players.
Butterfield can't speak highly enough of Craig Gower, a raging favourite for the prestigious Dally M Award, who stood up in front of colleagues and told them, if their planned boycott would help achieve fairer conditions and guaranteed minimums, it was a sacrifice he was prepared to make.
Or senior pros - Gorden Tallis, Brad Fittler, Trent Barrett, Luke Priddis, Steven Price, Simon Woolford, Matt Gidley and Steve Menzies - who signed up to the concept and accepted leadership roles at their clubs.
Statistics suggest, the Players Association has arrived. In June, it had 311 paid-up members from a potential membership of around 380.
Recalcitrants, New Zealand and Parramatta, thanks largely to the efforts of Nathan Cayless and Nathan Hindmarsh, have come on board in recent months.
The RLPA faces the same attitudes as just about every other union in Australia.
Initially, Butterfield said, members were split between those who supported collectivism as a principle and those who thought the organisation would service their needs as professionals.
A few kept their hands in their pockets because they thought they would benefit, automatically, from any successes the organisation achieved.
The new Association's income reflects its growth. In 2001 it got by on $35,000. Fees totalled $100,000 and $110,000 over the next 12 month periods and, this year, it is looking at more than $250,000.
The big jump came from rugby league players agreeing to substantial fee hikes so funds could be reinvested with a view to making their organisation self-sustaining.
Rugby league has long been portrayed as a working class game. Can it sustain a working class organisation in the face of strong opposition from the NRL, player agents and influential sections of the media?
Butterfield won't be around forever, he's already made that promise to Kristen and their four young boys.
"The future," he says, "is up to the players. It's their game now, and their organisation."
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