Reports have emerged that former NRL star Sam Burgess choked out one of the SAS Australia instructors to the point where an ambulance had to be called. It begs the question: why the fuck are we letting Burgess rehab his public image?

Fox Sports had the Burgess exclusive, describing how Burgess was taking part in a “hostage” exercise with seven fellow contestants, travelling in a vehicle at 100km/h driven by two former SAS soldiers.

The point of the exercise was to see which contestant would “step up” and save their fellow hostages, and Burgess, it turned out, was up to the task. However, Burgess’ chokehold reportedly “dumbfounded” producers and required an ambulance to be called.

We don’t know any of the details beyond that. Questions to Channel 7 were answered with a promotional tagline for the upcoming series. It was probably a story dropped to Fox Sports in order to promote the season, given the framing of Burgess as “a top-shelf player” and a “leader among men” – rather than someone who’d had some fairly serious allegations of violence levelled against him.

So remind me: why is Sam Burgess allowed to undergo reality TV image rehabilitation?

In 2020, an explosive report in The Australian alleged Burgess had, among other things, assaulted his heavily pregnant then-wife Phoebe Burgess in November 2018.

phoebe burgess sam burgess
Photo: Instagram.

“I was worried she was going to lose the baby,” Phoebe’s dad Mitch Hooke, who says he witnessed the assault, told the publication.

“You could tell she was in pain. She was inconsolable, she was crying. There was this wail, you can’t describe it. As a father, I can’t think of anything that was more traumatic in my life.”

Burgess denied the allegations.

A few months after that report, Burgess was found guilty of intimidation against his ex-father-in-law in October 2019. Magistrate Robert Rabbidge found Hooke an “impressive, believable and consistent” witness who gave “clear and concise” evidence. However, Burgess had that conviction overturned by a NSW court in March this year, with Justice Mark Williams saying there was a “substantial possibility” Hooke was fabricating evidence against Burgess to help his daughter’s case.

It’s messy, for sure. In fact, Phoebe Burgess admitted in court to leaking her police statement to The Australian. She said she was approached by journalists over rumours of the alleged violence, and chose to hand over the document “instead of covering it up which is so typical of the system I was part of, that I believe is toxic within the NRL”.

And yet. And yet.

In Australia, it feels like no one gets more second chances than the once-great sporting hero caught up in an alleged drugs / abuse / rape scandal. (Take your pick, we’ve seen them all before.) Clubs close ranks around their stars, and any misdemeanors can be swept under the rug with enough money, forgiveness, and time. If the tabloids are to be believed, SAS Australia found Pete Evans too spicy to cast, but had no problem with Burgess.

As for the ex South Sydney Rabbitohs star, his most recent run-ins with the judicial system have nothing to do with his former family. He plead guilty just last month to driving with an illicit drug in his system and driving an unregistered car without a license.

sam burgess
Photo: Instagram.

Is this really who we want to watch on our screens every night?

Celebrities go on reality television for two reasons: to make money or to put themselves back in the limelight (and ideally both). The more spurious benefit is the reputation rehab reality TV – with its familiar trials, tribulations, and humanising confessions – provides them. Think Sean Spicer on Dancing With The Stars, or to a much lesser extent, Abbie Chatfield owning the feminist narrative on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! after The Bachelor‘s villain edit.

Pretty soon, we’ll see Burgess go through the rigmarole of SAS Australia, being “pushed to his limits” alongside a bunch of other Aussie celebs. It’s physical, tough, and if last season is anything to go by, downright violent.

Charges have never been laid over the allegations of domestic violence, which Burgess’s lawyer described as an “indefensible defamation” at the time, and so the competing versions have never been tested in a court. It’s a big, stinking question mark. But tell me: why is he starring in a hit reality show again?