IF modern rugby league players need any reminding about just how much scrutiny they are now under they only need take one look at Zak Hardaker.
The Leeds Rhinos full-back has had to make a public apology for the second time in only seven months following the homophobic comment he made in their game against Warrington Wolves.
It came after he was fined £2,500 and warned by his club in November for breaching their code of conduct having been thrown out of England’s World Cup squad due to an alcohol-related incident.
The latter was always likely to see him end up in trouble, but the 22-year-old can rarely have imagined shouting a slur – as ugly and vulgar as it was – in the game last week would see him in the mire once more.
However, given he was caught live on television mouthing those words which fans watching from their sofa could decipher, let alone a lip-reader, and the power of social media, he has suddenly found himself embroiled in another PR disaster.
It is right that he has. There is no place in the game, or society in general, for such offensive language.
That Hardaker has said he was aiming it at Warrington captain Michael Monaghan and not referee James Child, as was initially perceived, is not a mitigating factor of any kind. He should not have said it to anyone.
Of course, players are only human and can produce actions they regret in the heat of the battle – whether foul play or foul language – but there should be no leniency dependent on who the victim is, whether opponent, official or even supporter.
But it is interesting that this incident occurred on the same weekend as Hull KR prop Michael Weyman was dismissed for foul and abusive language to a referee.
He argued – unsuccessfully given the Australian prop was banned for two games – in the Rugby Football League disciplinary that he had said the words but they had been aimed at team-mate Graeme Horne who had criticised him for conceding a penalty.
It is always a plausible explanation in such circumstances, and one that has been offered up at all levels of the game for decades, but it did not wash with the panel.
It is so hard to prove at whom any vitriolic comment is directed and only the player in question ever knows the answer.
But, again, in Hardaker’s instance, it is accepted the identity of the target does not matter.
The RFL are still investigating the matter and Hardaker – who says he will accept any punishment handed down – is certain to be charged with breaching their Respect policy and bringing the game into disrepute.
Anyone who has met the 22-year-old would agree he is an amenable enough young man, a “good egg” even, but, like many, he has his rough edges.
Some have argued he should be given a lengthy ban and also be barred from playing for England in this autumn’s Four Nations, but there is a danger of being too draconian when it comes to the penalty imposed.
No doubt he will be made an example of, and certainly that does need to be done.
But rugby league has a habit of being too excessive at times and it has to be hoped the player’s serious error in judgment does not endanger the development of one of its most gifted young talents.
Nonetheless, hopefully this unpleasant case will make all players think twice about what they do and say.
And not just to whom.