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How former NRL great Trent Merrin plans to revolutionise player welfare.

Footy players might look invincible on the field but, when they make mistakes with money, partners and children, “we hurt too … just as much as everyone else”.

Former NRL star Trent Merrin, who has had his own dramas play out in the public eye, said having your personal life raked over and criticised on the airwaves and social media was devastating and was potentially leading to mental health issues.

“We bash each other for a living but we are professionals, that’s controlled aggression. When it comes to money, our kids, marriage breakdowns, contract disputes, we hurt just as much as everyone else. We hurt too,” he said.

Merrin said his experiences made him realise the way the NRL prepares its young stars for public scrutiny is broken – and he wants to fix it.

“Kids come in at 14, 15, 16, often from low socio-economic backgrounds with a huge talent,” he said.

“Some are traumatised from their difficult upbringings, they get exposed to footy and success at a young age but once they get there they don’t know how to navigate it all, nor do their parents.

“That’s where we come in, we want to flip this culture on its head.”

The former St George Illawarra Dragon had an AVO against him dismissed this week.

“Now that I’m here and have been through it, it gives me perspective,” Merrin told the Sunday Telegraph in an exclusive interview.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the space of managing and nurturing players but going through that side of it added spice to my motivation.” He said the NRL didn’t reach out to him as he went through the court process after being hit with an AVO over a verbal altercation with his ex-wife.

“They only care about their business. Even the stand-down clause, who is that looking after? It shows you there is no emotional attachment,” he said. “I know how to run a business, these kids are your product. If you nurture your product, educate them, they become their own foot soldiers and push back.”

Merrin, who won a premiership with St George and also represented the NSW Blues and Australia before he retired, has teamed up with another former St George player Jake Marketo to launch an advisory and mentoring service for current and former NRL players and athletes from falling into the “career traps” they encounter.

Merrin said he has watched countless teammates flounder once they retire from football, making bad relationships and financial choices and getting mixed up in alcohol and drug abuse.

“These are the things that cause mental health issues and suicides when people don’t feel supported or have the tools to protect themselves and make smart choices,” he said. “We want to support people to fight back.”

The former players have created Azure Partners with professionals experienced in corporate law and advisory, marketing and branding and events, social media management, events and finance.

“Elite athletes in all sports face a gap in support as many of the existing services only focus on their on-field performance and contracts, leaving their financial, personal and professional growth unaddressed,” Merrin said.

“We all know or have experienced the terrible mishaps that athletes fall into, including their personal relationships, contractual disputes, failed business ventures, gambling and the list goes on”.

He wants to fill the void.

“The player agents get them their contacts but then they don’t allow players to grow, communicate, negotiate as they grow into an adult.

“They get taught that all they have to do is concentrate on footy but they lose their growth in other aspects.

“That’s why they are so childish as adults, make dumb decisions, have nights out that lead to trouble – the list goes on and on. We want to educate them on what it’s actually like out there in the real world. The risk to reward with these temptations. And we hold them accountable for the decisions they make and help them navigate the repercussions but with a focus on learning how to make smarter choices.”

Merrin said high-profile players were often preyed upon, so structure was crucial.

“We see it time and time again where bad relationships, poor choices, end in disaster,” he said. “You’re coming into one of the biggest money-making industries in Australia but you are not getting educated about money. And then it goes deeper than that, the media wants you to mess up because that’s big news.” Merrin considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“I had to work hard to get what I wanted and I started when I was eight years old. I’ve always put myself in a position to get there and had good role models coming through like Wayne Bennett. I’ve always had an open mind, but then when you go through rough times, things like a marriage break-up, a public court case, you see the other side of it too.

“We have got to turn the tide. And the only way you can do that is by being by the players’ side.”

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