It’s just the right thing to do. Shed some light on a dark and hidden subject like violence against women. Talk about it. Make a taboo subject easier to discuss and easier to end.
Nigel Vagana manages the Welfare and Education Program for the National Rugby League (NRL). He works with all the players, from the 16-year-old Rookies to this season’s stars, on all aspects of their lives off the field. As a recognised leader in the NRL, Samoan and Pacific communities, Nigel uses his status, with grace and humility, to mentor young players into becoming respectful and upstanding members of their communities.
Nigel was born in New Zealand of Samoan parents. His mother was from Fasito’o Uta, Satupa’itea and Utulei (American Samoa) and his father from Samatau and Vaovai, Falealili. He is recognised as one of the most admirable and successful league players of Samoan heritage. Having played and captained both New Zealand and Samoa as an international representative centre, Nigel retired as the New Zealand’s all-time top try-scorer with 19 to his name. He was also named captain of the Toa Samoa side for the 2008 Rugby League World Cup, and he has played club football in New Zealand for the Warriors, in England for Warrington, and in Australia for the Bulldogs, Cronulla-Sutherland and finally South Sydney. In 2009 Nigel retired from field play and began looking after the welfare of current and retiring NRL players.
The NRL has recognised that their players, with an average playing career of 43 games (about three and half years), rise quickly to fame and fall just as fast. As an organisation, they have duty of care to ensure that NRL players are given the necessary training to handle situations that develop because they play rugby league at the elite level. Their Welfare and Education Program, and specifically their Respectful Relationships Program, is acknowledged as one of the most progressive in the sporting arena in Australia.
Respectful Relationships was initiated after allegations that a group of NRL players had sexually assaulted a woman in 2004. The program is based around making decisions using an ethical framework model, developed by a team of researchers including Karen Willis from Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia and Professor Moira Carmody from the Sex and Ethics Education program at the University of Western Sydney.
Nigel uses the ethical framework model when coaching young players on the facts around issues like consent and sexual assault, including the legal parameters. In an engaging manner, he helps educate players through role play, workshops and frank discussions on how their behaviour impacts their careers, their relationships and their communities. He sometimes brings in professional actors to create hypothetical situations that these young men, 18 and 19 years old, suddenly face now that they are recognised on and off the field. Together they work out appropriate responses to scenarios in pubs, in the community, and in the home. When the situation escalates, the actors respond accordingly and the consequences soon become apparent.
While, ‘power and control’ are key to a winning performance in sport, they are also the foundation of violent behaviour against women. Nigel works on getting players to understand that the factors that lead to success on the field are the same as those that contribute to violence against women. They discuss the components of healthy relationships and promote a culture of non-violence and respect for women both within the NRL and the broader community. As Nigel says, it’s just the right thing to do.