It seems inevitable that once every few weeks the NRL is destined to shoot itself in the foot over an avoidable PR disaster. While this time they may have avoided the NRL staples of drugs and violence, it is a damaging indictment on how some in the NRL community still have a long way to go to be seen as tolerant members of society.
Last Monday the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles announced plans to wear a jersey featuring some rainbow trim in support of the LGBTQIA+ community for their crucial game against the Roosters last Thursday night.
Unfortunately, they’d forgotten to tell the players of these plans, and seven of the first team decided to not take part due to “religious and cultural reasons”. Six of these seven players come from deeply religious, Pacific Island backgrounds.
It is important to acknowledge that the lack of communication from the Manly head office to its players about the plans to wear the jersey was a gross oversight and a warning about the move could have spared some of the PR damage caused in the last week.
However, those who choose to exonerate the players for their role in this fiasco are allowing themselves to act as defenders for the continuing discrimination against some of the most continually marginalised people in our society.
Some have suggested that the players choosing not to play are simply fulfilling the wishes of their religious elders, many of whom are clear in their aggrandised sermons about what sexuality is acceptable. They may even support the move but don’t wish to disrespect their elders.
I would argue that these players who are so keen to be seen as role models when they stutter their way through a speech at a primary school should have the gumption to advocate for these people within their own cultural circles. Surely true leadership would be demonstrating that attitudes in some conservative communities should be changed.
Also, the point of wearing the rainbow jerseys is to educate unaware members of the public, such as your religious blow-hards, that discrimination still very much exists in our society against the LGBTQIA+ community.
Anyone who feels that isn’t worth promoting should probably not be allowed to play a game that always sees itself as inclusive.
Speaking of which, rugby league has been played professionally in this country for 114 years and there is only one current or former player who has come out as gay.
Awkwardly for the Sinless Seven, he is former Manly legend Ian Roberts.
Others have pointed out the hypocrisy of these supposedly deeply religious players having no issue playing in jerseys every other week with gambling and mortgage companies sponsoring the team, in a stadium named after a brewery.
They should also not be taken seriously whenever they state that they are doing something “for the fans” ever again. The Warringah electorate voted 75% in favour of same-sex marriage in the 2017 plebiscite, despite its local member at the time being homophobe-in-chief Tony Abbott.
The NRL is one of the few professional sports in Australia that does not have a Pride Round, and this incident has ignited discussions in head office to start one as early as next year.
In the more immediate future, Manly showed commendable values by sticking to its guns and playing in the jerseys on Thursday night without the seven players, who I assume spent their Thursday night at some sort of mass praying for the sins their mates were committing.
This was a particularly big deal as the game against the Roosters would go a long way to decide who gets to play in the finals at the end of the year.
This presented a dilemma for the non-Manly fan. Most NRL supporters have two teams, I for example go for the Dragons and whoever is playing Manly.
But despite the initial urge to double down and root against them, a significant part of me thought that perhaps this was the most likable the Manly lineup was going to be, since it was the first rugby league team in history to try and exclude homophobes.
It was too much of a leap, however, and I went into the game hoping for a tight Roosters win, and for the Soulful Seven to have to look their teammates in the eye for the rest of the season as they miss the finals.
Happily, the Roosters won 20-10 and the rugby league world waits with bated breath to see what new scandal can be cooked up just in time for the finals.