Rugby league does not have a pride round; this week’s round celebrates the women in the competition.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that, given the furore aimed at the Manly Sea-Eagles.
When Manly Brookvale runs up Oval to beat the Sydney Roosters in a match you need to win, the one-off striped jersey will be more recognizable than most players wearing it.
Seven regular starters will sit out for citing religious reasons for not wearing a team shirt with a rainbow of pride.
The design was supposed to represent the integration of all marginalized groups into the rugby league, not specifically the LGBTQ+ community it is associated with.
But with all the good intentions in the world, that message was lost, certainly not explained to the playing group before they found out through the media that they were supposed to carry it.
Most of the players involved are Pasifika – they have been portrayed as bigots by some who do not recognize their culturally religious views.
But Pasifika players make up 50 percent of player ranks, making rugby league unique among all other major Australian sports.
A question often repeated this week is: ‘It’s 2022, what’s their problem?’ As if we have miraculously arrived at a place where the complex challenges of a diverse society are no longer allowed to exist.
There is irony in any group that calls for tolerance that only works in one direction.
When asked, male captain Daly Cherry-Evans said he had never heard bigoted comments from his teammates.
‘No. These kinds of things are not a topic of conversation.’ He said. “As a play group, we experience a lot for the first time.”
Contrary to the headlines and the predictable social media stacking of both extremes, the individuals speaking publicly this week about the NRL’s perfect storm have all respected each other.
It delivered a rare display of leadership that was missing from so many of our loudest debates.
In the absence of anyone from Manly’s management, it was the coach, Des Hasler, and the captain who took it upon themselves to apologize for the club’s “major mistake” in mishandling a delicate situation.
“Unfortunately, the implementation of what was intended to be an extremely important and groundbreaking initiative has been poor,” Hasler said.
“[It] has caused great confusion, discomfort and pain to many people, especially those groups whose human rights we were actually trying to support.
“We’ve even had a negative impact on our playgroup, an amazing group of people from many different racial and cultural backgrounds.”
It has been reported that the players involved will not attend the match for fear of violent reprisals.
The NRL’s inclusion policy, perhaps more than any other sport, lists the many aspects and labels that can divide communities:
“The NRL strives to be an inclusive organization open to all members of the Australian community regardless of age, race, religion, color, origin, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, marital status, parental status, disability or HIV /AIDS status or other characteristics that may cause people to feel left out or isolated”.
Rugby league is the sport and Manly is the club where Australia’s first professional male footballer came out as gay in 1995.
Ian Roberts has been lobbying the NRL for a pride round for five years.
His elation when he learned that Manly would be donning a rainbow jersey this week waned as the story unfolded, but in the media he said he harbored no animosity towards the players who decided not to wear it and instead chose to leave the game to sit out.
“I heard [coach] Dessie and [captain] The apology from Daley Cherry-Evans… I loved the recognition and the sincerity and the authenticity.
“I fully respect the players who choose not to play, and their right not to play, with their religious beliefs.
“I would love it if I could have the chance to sit around the table with those guys and just have a conversation with them… and explain to them that unfortunately there are children in the suburbs, in the regions that maybe not many stories in the past month, but i can promise you they heard this story.
“You know, this is brutal language to hear, but sometimes people need to hear this. There are kids in the suburbs who commit suicide…that’s the consequences we’re talking about.
“The reason I came to this club was because I felt safe,” said Roberts.
One of Roberts’ teammates in 1995 was Des Hasler. As a player, Hasler knew the courage it took to do what Ian Roberts did. Today, as a coach, he also understands the cultural and religious background of a majority who play the game.
Diversity is easy to achieve. Inclusion is more difficult.
Respect is key, according to Dr David Lakisa, director of Talanoa Consultancy, a training and development company that helps organizations better understand, support and engage people from the Pacific.
“In Pacific culture, respect is a fundamental value,” he told The Ticket. “It is supported by the Pan-Pacific concept called ‘va’, the sacred relational space between people’s places.
“This means creating shared spaces of respect for yourself, others, space and environment.”
In 2007, Dr. Lakisa appointed Australia’s first Pacific Islander coach and development officer for the NSW Rugby League. Like most others in the community, he is a lifelong supporter of the game.
While he has not spoken directly to any of the players involved in the Manly affair, he says he understands where they are coming from.
“Like many workers in the workplace, these selective players find that their cultural and religious beliefs partially conflict with their employees’ expectations.
“Pacific culture, like many other cultural groups, is based on networks of family ties, spirituality, culture, respect and reciprocity.
Interestingly, Pacific queerness is not new. Fa’afafine (Samoan) or fakaleiti (Tongan), translated as ‘like a lady’, are individuals who identify themselves as having a third gender or non-binary role in the Samoan or Tongan diaspora .
“This group often thrives, is highly visible and is accepted in Pacific society.”
According to Dr. Lakisa, the players would not have wanted to cause such a furore.
“Like most employees, they don’t intend to cause harm or divide, after all, they work and operate in a team-oriented performance environment.
“What’s important here is to formulate and co-design ways to build trust in the workplace so that everyone involved feels safe and protected in their personal and collective beliefs.”
Australian Rugby League chairman Peter V’landys also spoke about respect, noting that the game will continue to work towards integration from all directions.
“Look, I respect the choice of the players. They have religious and cultural differences. Let me say this though, the only thing we are proud of in rugby league is that we treat everyone the same, we are all human, it doesn’t matter what your color is, it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is, it doesn’t matter what your race is, we are all equal.”
If communities were measured only by the fact that everyone agreed, few would survive.
As Roberts said, it’s not about how the conversation started, it’s how it’s progressing now.
With the respect shown on all fronts, the male legend’s desire to sit around a table with everyone involved may happen sooner than he imagines.