A different goal

By Andrew Stevenson

Rugby League star Greg Inglis will swap his jersey for textbooks this year when he begins a business degree to prepare him for life after football.
Image of Greg Inglis

Credit: Matt Eastwood

Greg Inglis lopes into view in a small café underneath the grandstand at Redfern Oval. A tall man, his body seems barely contained by the singlet and shorts he is wearing. His is not the stacked-on muscle of beefcake but something more graceful and permanent. And this year he’s making a big step towards ensuring his own contribution to Australian life is more long-lasting than the dazzling talent he displays on rugby league grounds across the eastern seaboard.

Inglis, 26, has been one of the best players in the National Rugby League almost since he began to play first grade and his presence has grown to the point where he is among the most recognisable faces of the sport. Now with South Sydney, the NRL club with the longest and deepest connections to Aboriginal Australia, Inglis is becoming not just a great player but a leader with a presence in the sport and cool authority among Indigenous Australian youth.

But that authority will count for little this year when he enters a new arena. From weekend sporting star, Inglis will become another nervous young man finding his way around the University of Sydney, taking the first steps towards a degree in business and marketing.

As an Aboriginal man who didn’t finish Year 12, Inglis will be filled with even more trepidation than the typical new student. The weight of sandstone, the generations of studious minds who had passed through its doorways sat heavily on his first visit to the campus. But not heavily enough to crush his sense of humour. “It was a bit intimidating. It looks like Hogwarts. I feel like I’m in Harry Potter,’’ Inglis told Professor Geoffrey Garrett, the (former) Dean of the Business School. "As big as I am, it’s pretty intimidating: I pretty much had to pick the scariest-looking university of them all,’’ Inglis jokes.

"It looks like Hogwarts. I feel like I’m in Harry Potter."

Professor Shane Houston, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) is working hard to break down the fear factor, “to show that the University of Sydney isn’t just for people from the North Shore and the Eastern Suburbs” but is an environment in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians can thrive.

“Greg’s coming to Australia’s oldest university, getting in and succeeding sends the right signals that the University of Sydney is a place where Aboriginal people can flourish. And that is exactly the message we want people to have: that we can help build their future,” he said.

A talk Houston gave to South Sydney players last year got Inglis thinking. “I had always wanted to do something. I always knew that footy is not going to last forever but listening to him got me thinking and I decided to chase him up and do something about it,” he explains.

Life after football

Houston is thrilled to have Inglis on the team. “This is about setting him up for a life after professional football. Greg is using this as a platform to build something for the future and to me that is a signal we should be sending to every Aboriginal person in sport anywhere in the country: we have to think about life after football.”

Inglis completed a Certificate IV in youth work when he played with the Melbourne Storm but since moving to Sydney two years ago he has built up his own GI clothing label, hence his interest in marketing. “I had always wanted to have my own brand and clothing line and I’ve got that up and running now and I wanted to build on that. I want to come out of my football career with something behind me, either a degree or an area in which I can work.”

The only certainty of a football career is that it will end – and probably sooner than expected. Players joke that NRL stands for Not Real Long. Last season Inglis switched from centre to fullback, a move he hopes will see his shoulders last another couple of seasons. Having started in first grade aged 18, Inglis, now just 26, has already played 157 NRL games and wants to play as long as he can. “It goes so quick. Before you know it you’re into your final season of footy,” he says. Now, Inglis is dedicating his off-field time to the season after that: life.

"Hopefully it will inspire some other Indigenous kids to put their hands up and go to uni."

“University is going to benefit me in life – of course, I’ve got to pass first. It’s going to be a long few years. They reckon at the university I’ve got a 10-year window to get it done. If I get through it I will be happy, even if it takes me to the last year to finish it. But first I have got to nail the opportunity. I want to pass, to do the best I can and to walk away with something – not a participation medal,” he says. “I think a degree would do wonders for me and what I want to do with the rest of my life after football and hopefully it will inspire some other Indigenous kids to go all the way through to Year 12 and to put their hands up and go to uni.”

Inglis will be the first in his family to go to university, a fact that thrilled his parents. “I think they’re very proud of me. I told them about it and you couldn’t wipe the grin off my mum’s face.” But, as Inglis notes, putting your hand up to go and actually making it through to a degree are two different things. He is comforted by the idea that the University, in the form of Shane Houston, is in his corner. “He totally understands that I am a professional athlete and knows that trying to juggle sports and studying is a pretty hard thing to do,” he says.

Houston acknowledges it will be a big challenge. “Uni’s hard for everyone, let’s make no mistake about it. But we want to make sure Greg walks out of Australia’s best university with a degree that means something and that it is based on the quality of the work he has put in.’’

Houston said research shows Aboriginal students are the least likely to seek help when they need it. New Indigenous support officers will start this year to work proactively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. “Their job will be to ring up students every two weeks, find out how they’re going. If they’re struggling they will line up tutors and get them the support they need. They’ll give them encouragement and a kick up the pants if they need it but their job will be to do what it takes to get them through.”

Studying raises the bar

For too long rugby league players have been playing X-Box and worrying about social media, says Dean Widders, a former NRL player who manages welfare and education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players at South Sydney.

The decision by Greg Inglis to enrol at the University of Sydney was part of a broader change. “There’s a lot of good things happening in the game. Studying is becoming a trend in the game. It’s a matter of getting yourself right off the field as well as on it. It’s like a big wave washing through the NRL,” Widders says.

Image of books

Inglis sets the standard on the field, Widders adds. Now, he’s setting it off the field too. “It’s awesome. It just shows what sort of a character he is. He is right at the centre of breaking new ground for Aboriginal people and footballers in particular. “The difference he makes to other young Aboriginal players – not only at his club but at other clubs too – can already be seen. He certainly does a lot of inspire a lot of other young kids.”

Apart from developing skills for the future, Widders reckons university will be good for players in the short-term, offering a completely different life experience. “It’s a chance to get away from rugby league. When you go to university with different people it doesn’t matter whether you scored five tries on the weekend – or let five tries in. No-one cares,” he laughs.