Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hazem El Masri retires

Last weekend, a crowd assembled of 41,835 spectators - the biggest for any regular-season game held in Sydney for 35 years. They were there to farewell the man known as "El Magic". At age 33, Canterbury Bulldogs star winger Hazem El Masri is retiring, ending a career that has seen him become the National Rugby League's all-time leading points scorer.

If it were for his on-field exploits alone, El Masri would be remembered as a great of the game. But it is his reputation off the field which make El Masri a doubly remarkable individual. In a sport that has been repeatedly scandalised by its boozing culture, repeated incidents of violence and sexual assault allegations, El Masri stands out as a respected man of honour. The Lebanese-born devout Muslim is one of the few stars of the game who can unequivocally be regarded as a role model. He won the NRL's Ken Stephen Award in 2002 which recognises players who work for the betterment of the wider community. He played an important role in stepping forward to help soothe tensions after the Cronulla riots in 2005, when racially-motivated violence broke out on Sydney's beaches.

In a city where tension between the Lebanese and wider communities has been high in recent years, and in a nation where a majority view Islam with a degree of suspicion, Hazem El Masri has nonetheless remained a universally respected figure. The sort of example that the both embattled NRL and the embattled Lebanese community needs more of.

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