by Kate Cornish
“I would often arrive at Ballet after footy training with mud up my legs, or sometimes at footy
training with a ballet bun. I have always been a bit of a contradiction.”
Jessica Macartney is many things, she is passionate, she is driven, and she is genuine. She is also one of the women involved in Rugby League who are absolutely integral to its existence, its preservation and its future.
A few months ago, I came across Men of League on social media. Jess had shared a heart-warming story that Men of League had recently been a part of. Jess had re-tweeted the piece with warmth and compassion, and it caught my attention. I wanted to know more about Men of League, but more importantly, the woman behind the tweet.
The landscape of Rugby League in Australia is changing, that is a fact. While there may be some that are trying to resist it, they can no longer ignore that it is happening.
Women are becoming more vocal and are investing more time in the sport than ever before. Greater numbers of women are engaged, and they are holding the game and the men involved accountable; wanting to breed a new version of the game that we can all be proud of.
While we still have a long way to go in regard to having females in positions of power and influence (think Marina Go, former Chair of the Wests Tigers), women are taking up spaces within the sport that in the past would have been historically reserved for men.
Women like Jess Macartney are on the forefront of this change, making their presence felt in a male dominated field, with their smarts, their attitude, their fortitude for creating change, but above all their love of the game.
All of us who love Rugby League have a story, Jess is no different. She has a long and beautiful
relationship with this game, a connection that has undoubtedly helped shape her into the person
and the career woman she is today.
“Not many people know this, but I am only half kiwi. I was born in Australia to an Australian mother. We moved to New Zealand for my dad’s work when I was very young. We only really had my grandparents, so my mum went in search of a community. My papa was an Eels man and so my mum went and found the local Rugby League Club, the Northcote Tigers. She joined up and paid her membership. As part of her membership she was told she would get a newsletter from the club. Her newsletter never came and when she enquired as to its whereabouts, she was told that there wasn’t a current volunteer to write one!”
That was the moment that Rugby League became more than just a game for Jess.
Her mum became the Under 10’s coach of the Northcote Tigers, and being a family of only girls did not matter in the slightest as Jess and her two sisters proudly took to the field in their Tigers jerseys. Her dad was involved too, becoming a highly sought-after football manager. He even managed the Kiwi Ferns a few years ago.
Rugby league really was a Macartney family affair.
Never one to boast about her talents, Jess insists her sisters were pretty good at footy, but that she was average. A statement I find hard to believe; I am not sure it would be possible for Jess to be average at anything.
There are not many roles that Jess has not turned her hand to in Rugby League. She has helped
support at grass root level as a kid in the canteen, she was a Northcote Tigers Cheerleader in the
local Christmas Parade float, and a ‘pretty cute ball kid’ (if she doesn’t say so herself!).
As she got older and wiser, Jess spent time as a selector for the Auckland Junior Reps and as a
strength and conditioning coach. She also had the incredible opportunity to commentate the Fox
Memorial Competition, on Auckland Waatea Radio alongside Dale Husband.
At university Jess studied to be a teacher, and in 2013 she found herself as Head of the PE
Department for an all-girls school; but seven years of teaching had taken its toll, and Jess was feeling burnt out.
She could never have known a trip to Sydney to watch the State of Origin would be the catalyst for
the events that would ultimately change her career and her life path.
“I thought to myself if I wasn’t a teacher anymore what would I be? I typed “league jobs” into
Google and up came an education manager role at the NRL. I thought why not and threw my hat in the ring. Eight weeks later I moved to Sydney and turned my passion into a career.”
After a few years being professionally involved in the league scene, Jess was approached and asked to take responsibility for the NRL Health Portfolio. Using all of her skills, she learnt that role on-the-job working alongside expert mental health partners.
It was at this time that Jess became incredibly passionate about the role that sport (especially Rugby League) could have in improving mental health outcomes for the community. This passion lead Jess down a path that has etched her into NRL history.
“I wrote a program at the NRL called State of Mind and drafted some high-profile players to use their profile as State of Mind Ambassadors, and it remains one of my career achievements I am most proud of.”
After devoting so much time to the State of Mind program, Jess spent some time working with
Headspace, an Australian non-profit organisation for youth mental health. In her spare time, she
found herself drawn back to league as a volunteer on the wellbeing committee for the Men of
Again, through her love of rugby league her life would change again. Six months after starting her
volunteer role with Men of League, she was offered a job as their National Wellbeing Manager, a
move she was thrilled to take, and she has not looked back.
When I spoke to Jess about her role within the Men of League Foundation her eyes lit up. She is one of those annoying people you come across every now and then, who do not just like their job, they love it.
As she explained to me exactly what the Men of League Foundation were all about, she beamed
with pride and her passion was contagious.
“Even for those who have heard of the Men of League Foundation the vast majority will not be
aware of the width and breadth of what we do. Essentially, we are a cradle to grave support system assisting those in the Rugby League family who fall on hard times. The Foundation is unique to Australian sport as it provides assistance to anyone within the code who has made a genuine and authentic contribution to the game. That includes people who have been players at any level, volunteered or officiated.”
As if that was not enough, the Men of League Foundation provide financial grants to help cover costs of disability equipment, home or car modifications, and even living costs. However, as Jess explains, the most important service they provide is social and emotional support for their recipients.
“We have a network of hundreds of volunteers across the country who visit people who are isolated or doing it tough. The Foundation’s work is important to me because I know firsthand the difference we can make. People’s lives can change in an instant. People who were living well can suddenly be faced with adversity they never saw coming. Knowing that they won’t have to face that alone makes me proud.”
There are over 500 volunteers across Australia and Jess describes them as ‘the lifeblood of the
Foundation.’ The volunteers are representative of 43 communities within the organisation. Last year they proudly performed over 1500 hours of visits to homes, hospitals and rehab centres.
“Communities are stronger when people feel connected and like they belong. Our volunteers do that for people each and every day. They also hold fundraising events throughout the country to
generate much needed funds so that we can distribute financial grants for those experiencing
In 2018 alone, the Men of League Foundation distributed over $1 million in financial grants. Their
hope is to be able to provide a grant to everyone who is eligible, but they can only do that with the
generous support of the Rugby League family.
Known for being generous with their time and generous from their hip pocket, the people of the
Rugby League community who attend the fundraiser events are the ones who help ensure that the Men of League Foundation is able to continue its great work.
“There are several ways that Rugby League people can support the Foundation. For as little as $25
per year, you can become a member of the Men of League Foundation. You can also attend an event near you, we hold golf days, bowls days and lunches as well as big gala events. Lastly if you know someone who needs extra support, you can make a referral to us so that we can organise a visit.
Information on all of the ways to connect with us and support us can be found on the Men of League Foundation website and social media channels.”
Of course, the NRL are also an important contributor to this worthy Foundation, a significant partner of Men of League they provide funding each year.
“The NRL helps to support the organisations operations, which is based on a set of agreed
deliverables. We would not be able to achieve all that we do without the support of the NRL.”
In early 2019 a Men of League initiative called Acts of Kindness was launched with the Wests Tigers.
“We asked the Wests Tigers fan base to nominate families/individuals from the Rugby League
community who are doing it tough and then we organised an Act of Kindness for a few of them.
Young Ellie is receiving treatment for cancer. We visited her at Ronald McDonald House in
Westmead with Luke Brooks and Timmy the Tiger. We were also able to donate $2500 in food and
fuel vouchers for the family. Harrison is a young man from Tamworth who is in Sydney with a spinal cord injury, we surprised him with a trip to Tigers training to meet his hero Benji Marshall. We also gave him an iPad so he could stay in touch with friends and family.”
While Jess is eager to stress that all of the NRL clubs are generous with their time, the Men of
League Foundation have official partnerships with the Wests Tigers, Parramatta Eels, Penrith
Panthers and most recently Sydney Roosters.
Acts of Kindness have also been a way for Men of League to engage younger players within the NRL. The role of Ambassador within the organisation is something that they are also very proud of. It is no doubt heart-warming to have current players want to be so actively involved in helping the Rugby League community, for no other reason than because they believe in what Men of League do.
“Two current players, Luke Brooks and Clint Gutherson have recently volunteered to lend their
profile to raise awareness for the Foundation and the great work we do. Luke volunteered after
joining us on a visit and witnessing firsthand the impact we have. When we have young up and
coming players volunteer their time it gives me hope that the legacy created by Ron Coote and his
former teammates all those years ago will continue into the future and is in safe hands.”
As any woman who is involved in Rugby League will know, it is not always easy to be passionate and unwavering in your support of the game you love so much. Certainly, in the last seven months there have been moments when even the staunchest of supporters have wondered why on earth they are still around. For the most part, fans have been unanimous in their voicing that ‘enough is enough’ when it comes to unsavoury player behaviour. The NRL themselves have drawn a line in the sand and seem to finally be coming to the understanding that there are standards that fans expect of players. Being a player no longer means you are immune to the consequences of your behaviour. The old school mentality that ‘boys will be boys’ no longer stands on strong legs as more and more women filter through the organisation.
Saying that, women like Jess have a unique perspective, being behind the Rugby League walls. Fans mostly get a hyped-up media version of events that are played ad nauseum until, seemingly the next scandal jumps in to take its place. It has been said that we must understand that less than 1% of the players involved in the NRL make the headlines for all the wrong reasons. There are many, many more like the men that Jess work with, that bring balance to that negative perspective.
“I have asked myself that several times over the last few months why I should stay involved. I stay
involved for a few reasons; firstly, I know that the NRL competition is one part of Rugby League, but it isn’t the whole picture. Rugby League is so much more than the 16 teams in that one competition. It isn’t glamorous but it’s actually grassroots that I Iove. Secondly, for the past 5 or 6 years I have been in a very privileged position where I have worked with the NRL players in the community space. I get to see firsthand every day of my career the difference that players make in the lives of others. I work closely with the Joel Thompsons and Darius Boyds of the game, so I get a balance to the bad news that we see in the media. I wish everyone had more of an opportunity to see the positive impact the game has.”
Jessica Macartney is incredibly important to the future of Rugby League in this country. She
unwillingly represents a change in the dynamic role that women play in sporting roles across the
country. As a woman, she provides balance and offers different ideas in a male dominated
environment, and as the number of women who are stakeholders in this franchise rise, be it in
membership numbers, skilled professionals like journalists, physios, referees, and of course female players – the contribution of women like Jess cannot be understated.
It seems Rugby League was destined to play a huge role in the life of Jessica Macartney, and the
irony is sweet as she now spends her days giving back to the game that has also given her so much.