What started out as a fun and inclusive initiative has turned sour after the NRL’s scheme to put cardboard cut-outs of fans in stadiums was hijacked.
Over the weekend a photograph of mass murderer Harold Shipman made an appearance in the stands, then a TV sketch featured an image of Adolf Hitler, prompting furious criticism from Australia’s Jewish community.
The broadcaster and the show’s host subsequently apologised, while the NRL said it would review its screening process.
The Fan in the Stand scheme, an effort to keep fans involved in the game while not allowed to watch their teams live, was rolled out for the first time as the 2020 season resumed last week in empty stadiums after a 10-week break due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most supporters took part in the scheme in good faith, uploading images of themselves for a fee of $22 plus GST, which were then printed out on 100% recyclable material and placed in the stands.
But other likenesses have appeared alongside genuine fans, including an image of Shipman, Britain’s most prolific serial killer, which was spotted during the Panthers’ clash with the Knights in Campbelltown on Sunday afternoon.
Shipman was found guilty in 2000 of murdering 15 of his patients by lethal injection, and while he may not be as infamous in Australia as he is in the UK, the inclusion of his likeness raises questions over the vetting procedure used by the NRL in its scheme.
“We are reviewing the vetting process for Fan in the Stand,” an NRL spokesman said. “The weekend was a trial run and trials are designed to iron out issues.”
The sighting of Shipman followed that of a cut-out of Dominic Cummings, the under-fire advisor to British prime minister Boris Johnson, which was seen at the competition’s first game since the shutdown on Thursday night.
Some fans have uploaded photos of themselves in fancy dress, or sporting an array of headgear to go with the jerseys of their team. Several dogs have even made appearances over the course of the third round.
Matty Johns, on his eponymous Fox Sports show that aired on Sunday night, sought to join the fun but the ill-judged insertion of an image of Hitler into a cardboard crowd scene caused widespread offence before the former player and his employer issued apologies.
“The segment on my Fox League show on Sunday in which we showed an image of Hitler in crowd cut-outs was in poor taste and completely inappropriate,” Johns said.
“I know Fox Sports has apologised but I need to personally step up to this. I know how raw and devastating those events remain for so many people and families.
“I acknowledge it was wrong and I apologise to our viewers and to everyone in the community who is rightly concerned and offended by the segment. I’ve reached out and spoken directly to Vic Alhadeff at the Jewish Board of Deputies this morning to apologise to the Jewish community and I’ll be apologising on air to all our viewers on Thursday night’s show.”
The sketch was widely criticised for using Hitler to normalise Nazism and desensitise the public to their crimes.
“I appreciate the show is meant to entertain and that no offence was intended but it is important to understand that such stunts have a very real impact,” the co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Alex Ryvchin, told Guardian Australia.
“Broadcasters and public figures set trends of humour and behaviour and I would hope Fox Sports and the hosts come to realise that what they no doubt thought was a harmless joke has the potential to do real harm.”
The Anti Defamation Commission, Australia’s leading civil rights organisation, confirmed it had received numerous complaints about the sketch, which “simply went too far”.
“This is bad taste and trivialisation of mass murder taken to the extreme,” said the organisation’s chairman, Dvir Abramovich. “Using Hitler to elicit a laugh is inexcusable, degrades the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, and is hurtful to survivors and their children.
“This was a disturbing abdication of judgment and a troubling lack of sensitivity.”
Fox Sports said it was reviewing the circumstances of the segment and “examining the action we need to ensure those involved understand it is not acceptable”.
“Fox Sports is very concerned by an incident involving an inappropriate image shown as part of a segment discussing NRL crowd cut-outs,” a spokesperson said. “We sincerely apologise for the offence the image has caused.”
The cardboard-fan scheme was tentatively rolled out for last week’s third round of the season, with plans to ramp up marketing planned ahead of this week’s round four.
At the time of the launch, the NRL said the initiative was “designed to ensure NRL members and fans’ presence are still felt inside the stadium, on-screen and online until the crowds can return”.