This is a tale which involves some of my favourite/least favourite things: rugby league, astrology, media fail at numbers/science and the obsession with trash and trivia of my town’s supposedly quality broadsheet, the Sydney Morning Herald.   The online version of the SMH nakedly chases page hits with whatever celebrity frippery, mass murder in some random place in the world and/or salacious scandal it can find, splashed across the top of the page.  It is a daily consternation.

So this is what confronted me this arvo, in the prime real estate of the top left hand corner of the page:

Image: Picture Cronulla Sharks CEO Tony Zappia outside Cronulla Leagues Club. Link to story headline: “One club, so many problems: time to call ET?  Mathematicians foxed by the probability of the Sharks’ scandals but astrologer blames Pluto.”  Link to another story called “Star signs.”

(Note: The ET refered to is not the alien, but the nick name of Andrew Ettinghausen, a club legend.)

The headline is “Sharks’ Horror Streak Confounds Maths.”   Confounds maths??? CONFOUNDS MATHS????

The relevant part of the main article is at the start:

What are the chances of one organisation being battered by such a run of appalling scandals as has beset the Cronulla Sharks?

Threat of extinction, sex scandals, players failing drug tests, former players being convicted in court, financial turmoil, a female employee getting a black eye, sex toys being given to the players, and just one win all season.

Mathematicians today could not hazard a guess at the probability of a single club enduring so many scandals in such a short time.

“You might have expected in the life of clubs that each of these sort of things happen every 10 years or so, but the fact that so many things have happened simultaneously is highly unlikely,” said Professor Joe Gani, from Australian National University’s Mathematical Sciences Institute.

But astrologer Dadhichi Toth said the presence of Pluto, the “subversive” planet, explained why the club was in turmoil.

This is truly terrible “journalism” by Arjun Ramachandran.   Even if we ignore the flipping astrologer, it is still facepalmingly lazy.  I do not blame the poor maths prof. You get bailed up by some joker on the phone, you got to say something.  I’ll return to the unsights (as opposed to insights) of Mr Toth later, but let’s look at the “unlikely run of scandals.”

Threat of extinction, sex scandals, players failing drug tests, former players being convicted in court, financial turmoil, a female employee getting a black eye, sex toys being given to the players, and just one win all season.

These are not discrete events, like the tosses of a coin. There is a web of relations between the various facts, the fact one happened made others more likely.   To start with the “sex scandal”, which is really a “sexual assault scandal”, no need to go into the details here.  In short, a major current affairs programme Four Corners did an hour long story on various incidents in rugby league of violence towards women,  the culture which can feed that, and some education efforts to change it. The biggest story concerned allegations against Cronulla Sharks players from 2002.  It’s been THE biggest media story for the last week and a half, at least in league playing areas.  That’s what turned the spotlight on the club, and why these other not-illegal-but-unsavoury stories are in the papers today.

They did not take place this week, they made the papers this week. Big difference.

What are the chances that an organisation embroiled in scandal will attract journalists to dig up other scandals and people with stories to tell about that organisation will come forward knowing someone now wants to listen? I’m no mathematician but the answer is:  100%

What are the chances Reni Maitua (the player who failed the drug test) would get himself in trouble? Maybe not 100% but given the repeated misbehaviour which got him sacked from his last club, getting up there. Dreadful timing PR-wise, I admit.   Only one win all year? Well someone has to lose and their form is down to injuries, a hard working but toothless attack and a defence prone to brainsnaps.  And as famed coach Jack Gibson said years ago, “waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt.” (Not really relevant, I just love the quote.)

Not content with this, the SMH give “face-reader” Toth his own article from which to Barnum to his heart’s content. Couched of course in “coulds” and “mays”, he does make a specific short-term prediction about “startling revelations between the May 30 and June 2 when Mercury moves into its forward motion.”  I anxiously await to see what they are.   The “hinting at a merger” at the end is just brazen, since this possibility has been a topic of conversation amongst league-fanciers all year. Head into any pub in Sydney at any time in the last three months and you’ll have heard the same thing.

So yes the Sharks have on their hands what celebrity PR flak Max Markson calls in the article “a category 5 PR disaster”, and I don’t know “what the chances are” in statistics but it is a cluster of mostly cause-and-effect that is hardly beyond the realms of science, or common sense.  But this is an unserious journalist in an increasingly unserious newspaper uninterested in shedding any light on a newsworthy situation.  He rang the maths guy not to get any answers, but to get him to say a few sentences from which he could mine a quote in order to justify the “confounds maths” heading. It’s working backwards, high-concept journalism which fails the most basic standards.   The astrologer is more willing to bullshit off the top of his head, indeed that’s his profession, and so gets his babblings uncritically repeated verbatim.

Please note: This is not a thread for rehashing of the 2002 Sharks allegations or anything to do with it.  Anything opining on motivations, rumours, characters etc will be deleted.  Sorry, but had enough of it elsewhere.


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  • You remind me of the Firepower sponsorship debacle, which has several sceptical lessons. There’s a book out about it I have been wanting to pick up.

  • What are the chances of one club being affected by a run of things like that? Well, lets see.

    The Western Force rugby union club almost went broke, almost had a player revolt and almost lost all its best players due to signing on a fuel pill additive company as their main sponsor.

    The Sydney Kings basketball team actually went bust and shut down less than a month after winning the grand final for signing on the same fuel pill additive company as their main sponsor.

    Rugby League players have a history of not exactly being the brightest sparks, alcoholism, hooliganism, anything untowards – you name it they do it proudly.

    When you take in to account what the business sense of the people who run these clubs, and the sense of anything at all of the players, what are the chances of one club being affected by a run of things like that? Pretty gosh darned good I’d say.