Why are league fans so divided by Alex McKinnon’s decision to pursue legal action over the tackle that left him quadraplegic, and what could it mean for the sport? Jarret Filmer explains.

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Former Newcastle Knights second-rower Alex McKinnon today announced that he will be pursuing legal action against the NRL and Melbourne Storm prop Jordan McLean over the tackle which caused severe spinal injuries that have left him quadriplegic. To suggest that this decision was divisive is a little bit like suggesting that David Boon was fond of the odd beer.

Some fans seem aggravated by the idea that McKinnon has violated some unwritten code of rugby league by pursuing a legal resolution to the situation. Rugby league is a violent game but it doesn’t need to be ugly. The NRL has a duty of care to ensure that all players understand their responsibility to protect themselves and their opponents when they step onto the field. The tackle made by Jordan McLean that saw McKinnon injured was ultimately deemed an accident, but just because it wasn’t the product of malicious intent doesn’t mean that the NRL is blameless. As an employer they have a duty to provide a safe workplace and reduce the risk of harm to its players. If McKinnon had suffered his injury in any other workplace I doubt there would be very many questioning his right to pursue legal remedy.

Other fans seem aggrieved that McKinnon has decided to sue the NRL and Jordan McLean after the NRL offered an unprecedented amount of support to him following his injury in the form of the ‘Rise for Alex’ round and the offer of a ‘job for life’. A cynical interpretation might suggest that these events were organized in a pre-emptive attempt to win public support and head off the possibility of just such legal action. A more charitable suggestion is that the NRL was not prepared to deal with such an incident and were doing the best they could the only way they knew how. In any event it is a bit churlish to suggest that McKinnon should take what he has been given and fade silently into the background – he is a young man facing a life full of complications and this law suit might represent his last, best chance at determining his future.

Some suggest that McKinnon contributed to the severity of his injury by ‘ducking’ his head while being tackled in order to milk a penalty. While it certainly seems possible that McKinnon contributed to his injury it’s the sort of thing that should be determined by experts rather than loud blokes in threadbare Balmain jerseys. At the very least by the end of this process there should be a clear understanding of everyone’s responsibilities, from the players to match officials to the NRL itself.

McKinnon’s lawsuit could prompt a whole slew of changes, ranging from the introduction of new measures designed to limit the potential for a reoccurrence of a similar incident to increasing the penalties for reckless play, or even something as drastic as eliminating the third player in the tackle or introducing weight restrictions.

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This is possibly the most confronting element for many long term fans. For a sport that has traded on its history of unashamed violence and brutality rugby league faces the difficult prospect of ensuring the game survives into the 21st century without compromising what made fans love it in the first place.

The NRL obviously understands that it must be most forceful in prosecuting its duty of care – in recent years the shoulder charge has been binned, fighting now results in an immediate, automatic on field sanction and a whole menagerie of exotic infringements from the chicken wing to the prowler have been implemented to protect the tackled player. McKinnon’s legal case will answer whether the NRL still has work to do.

At the heart of this story is a young man who in the course of an instant went from living his dream to being trapped in a nightmare. We want everyone affected by tragedy to be a perfect victim, to act with the precise amount of courage, humility and contrition that makes us feel good about bearing witness to their suffering. Some fans are convinced that McKinnon’s decision to seek a legal remedy is a poke in the eye of the charity NRL and the wider rugby league community who swung into support of him after his injury. While the impulse to label McKinnon churlish is, on some level, understandable, it is also hopelessly short sighted – he is facing a life of massive health challenges and uncertainty and if he feels as though he lacks the financial certainty to confront that future then it’s hard to blame him for doing what he feels is necessary.

At the very least it must be acknowledged that McKinnon’s decision to pursue legal action is exceptionally courageous. He has now opened himself up to immense public scrutiny and vitriol, his every decision now open to debate, spurning the role of dutiful victim so he can pursue his own destiny as best he can.

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As sports fans we are conditioned to view everything through the lens of the contest, an epic battle between opposed forces, good triumphing over evil, underdogs pulling off unbelievable upsets. We like players slot into easy roles – the hero, the villain, the underachiever, the journeyman. There is something comforting about the familiarity of these stories, a common language that is both binding and soothing.

When something like the McKinnon incident happens these stories fail us. There are too many complexities, too many shades of grey, too much reality. We want to force those familiar roles onto the players involved but they don’t simply fit. The beauty of sport is that it reduces the world to something small and understandable but the enormity and complexity of a situation like this defies reduction.

Empathy isn’t a game of winners and losers and we don’t have a finite amount of sympathy. It’s possible for us to feel compassion for McKinnon’s plight while also feeling for Jordan McLean and empathising with the difficult situation the NRL finds itself in and worrying about the future of the game we love so much. Sometimes it’s more important to be human than a fan.

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