Opinion: McKinnon, Smith and 60 Minutes

One full round of football, including one hell of an Origin decider, has now passed since Alex McKinnon appeared on 60 Minutes. No follower of league is in the dark as to who McKinnon is, or what his story is about. There are fewer things in contention for the most regrettable incident in recent rugby league history than the untimely injury that McKinnon sustained in March last year, after he was lifted in a tackle and fell awkwardly, resulting in significant damage to his C4 and C5 vertebrae that left him a quadriplegic.

Prior to his interview on 60 Minutes, the greatest debate around McKinnon may have been whether he would one day manage to walk again, or how much the NRL owed him in terms of compensation for his injury. The dialogue has taken a decidedly different direction now.

When Alex was shown footage of the tackle that injured him, and the reaction of those around him, it was Australian and Queensland captain Cameron Smith that stood out to him. Smith was arguing a point regarding the penalty that was given to Newcastle, after Alex had been removed from the field by medical staff. Admittedly, it didn’t make Smith look good, even though there have been convincing allegations that what he was shown was a carefully curated synopsis of that part of the match. After all, when a fellow footballer suffers that kind of injury, a penalty seems little more than laughable minutiae, especially in retrospect. In Alex’s own words, it looked “fucking ridiculous”.

Predictably enough, social media went into meltdown. The targets for the audience’s disgust were widespread – Cameron Smith, Alex himself, Liz Hayes, the 60 Minutes production crew – all came under fire. There were glimmers of sanity throughout, but let me address just a few things.

Firstly, it was said by many that the extent of Alex’s injuries couldn’t be known to anyone on field at the time. While perfectly true, this is simplistic. Watching the game live, it was clear this was quite a few rungs above your standard medial ligament strain, or even the woeful ACL tear or rupture. Alex’s face said it all – there was genuine fear, and panic, as he tried to gesture towards his mouth, and his teammates and medical staff went to remove his mouth guard. No one could know the struggle he would face to walk again, but it was clear that the injury was, in a word, serious.

Secondly, the ire directed towards Cameron Smith seems to come directly from his phrasing, rather than his generally approaching the referee in regards to the continuation of play. “If he doesn’t duck his head, that doesn’t happen” – well, there’s a very simple rebuttal to that. If he isn’t put in a dangerous position, it doesn’t matter what his own micro-movements are. That’s the long and short of the matter, no matter how many insist that Alex contributed to the injury, there would be no injury to speak of if he hadn’t been lifted and dropped on his head.

The issue that has arisen as a result of this interview has been misdirected. We do not have to defend Alex, for any reasonable person knows that his feelings are his, and he is entitled to them. It is both unfair and unwise to challenge a person in a position that so few of us can directly relate to, and one that will have a bearing on the rest of his life. Likewise, we do not have to ardently defend the actions of Cameron Smith, as the highly decorated captain can both defend himself, and be criticised fairly. Fans do not need to defend every misdemeanour that the players they like are party to – and Cameron Smith was, if nothing else, tactless. What we do need to do is honestly evaluate what things like this mean to our game, and that means honestly appraising the issue.

Show me a fan that believes the game of rugby league and its administration is perfect, and I’ll show you a liar. That’s why we owe it to the game to do more than bicker over the tiny details (like a penalty), and look at the big picture: player welfare, and the standard of play and player behaviour that holds the game and its growth in good stead.

McKinnon’s injury is a blight on the game – don’t let a good avenue for conversation about where we go from here become another one. It’s time to look at the big picture.

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