Raelene Castle has no regrets about taking on the Bulldogs NRL and Rugby Australia CEO jobs despite turbulent tenures that included elements of sexism and perceived media agendas against her.
Castle, Australian-born and New Zealand-raised, is now the boss of Sport NZ and opened up about her recent experiences in an illuminating appearance on Sky Sport NZ’s Playmakers vodcast.
Castle was Bulldogs chief executive from 2013-17 and RA boss from 2017-20, falling on her sword in April as the impact of the Israel Folau saga and COVID-19 combined with a loss of support from the board.
Asked whether she had experienced sexism as a female sports administrator, Castle said there was “more of it behind my back than to my face.”
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“Initially there was a lot of reservation and concern, when I went to the Bulldogs, of ‘oh my goodness, this is a woman, like what’s that all about?’
“I’m not naïve enough to say there wasn’t an overlay of the whole negativity and there were some social media platforms that I never read, I didn’t look at.
“I just didn’t because people that don’t know you, that have an agenda that is very sexist or misogynist, and they’ve got no interest in changing.”
Castle had some interesting observations about the differences of working in top level sport in Australia and NZ.
She said Australia, and particularly Sydney, was “bigger, brasher and more transactional.”
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Because the depth of talent in NZ’s sporting environments was shallower, Castle said the country was more nurturing and patient.
“And I think that’s true in business as well, I think we’re more inclusive and supportive and we look after our talent and make our talent want to stay with us for longer periods of time.
“I think you see a lot of the differences in business reflected in our sporting teams as well.”
After being back in NZ for six weeks, Castle said the No 1 question she had been asked was ‘oh my goodness you poor thing, how did you cope?’
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The 49-year-old was a frequent target from some sections of the media, with Alan Jones a particularly vocal critic of her leadership.
“There was some portions of the media that had a very strong view either that I shouldn’t have been the CEO, maybe that they never should have had a woman appointed in the first place,” Castle said.
“And so they always coloured any suggestions or any changes or any recommendations that I made.
“They had an agenda, they wanted to express their views and it didn’t matter what I did.
“How many times I met with them, when I went and talked to them, nothing was really going to change their view…
“Negativity often drives the headline these days and that’s one of the real challenges.
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“Click bait and if you have a negative headline that’s sort of controversial or exciting then that’s where you get the click.
“When you read the story often it doesn’t really stack up…
“It wasn’t that sort of crazy washing machine that the media would have suggested it was.
“Ultimately though perception can turn into reality and that was a real challenge that I faced.
“I tried really hard but just couldn’t find a way to actually calm some of those loud voices.”
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Castle also gave her perspective on the Folau social media storm which dominated the last two years of her tenure.
Folau was sacked by RA for homophobic social media posts and after a messy legal dispute eventually received a big payout to drop his courtroom fight.
“Ultimately that was an incredibly complex issue and there has been millions of column inches written about it in New Zealand, Australia and also internationally,” Castle said.
“So yeah it was really difficult.
“You know I’ve sort of joked that when I started the role I didn’t think I’d end up as a university case study in every sporting university – how to deal with a sports star that that uses a social media platform for his own view.”
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Castle also spoke about the unique situation she faced with Folau’s wife, Maria.
Castle and Maria Folau had an established relationship from when she was Netball NZ CEO and Folau was one of the Silver Ferns’ star players.
“I got some really great advice from my mentor who said to me when you’re in these positions, he said ‘be authentic, be real, form good relationships and friendships but don’t get so close that you can’t kick their ass.’
“That’s obviously an example of that.
“You know ultimately I had to make a decision and Rugby Australia had to make a decision that was in the right interest of Rugby Australia.”
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