When the Manly Sea Eagles step up to play the Sydney Roosters on Thursday night, they will do so wearing the pride jersey, depicting some subtle rainbow colours within the team’s traditional maroon, to showcase a broader message of inclusivity.
But it’s a message that has sadly, already, carried plenty of controversy and caused hurt, with the depiction of inclusivity in this case being deemed so offensive that seven players will sit the game out, rather than wear the jersey.
Those seven players have opted out on religious and cultural grounds – and we can make what we will from that in terms of the fact they’re willing to wear a jersey advertising a gambling company, and play at a home ground sponsored by the local brewery company, 4 Pines, but not get behind this message of pride.
But also causing hurt is the broader reaction to this stance – the multiple front pages from the Murdoch Press particularly, including today’s showing a picture of Hugh Jackman wearing the Pride jersey alongside the headline “Hugh knew about this.” As well as a column published today that asks, “Is this the hill Manly wants to die one?”
The fallout from what should have been a simple message has become distraction from the game. It’s raised questions over efforts from the NRL to make strides on inclusivity – including the live performance from Macklemore celebrating same-sex love and marriage just prior to the marriage equality vote. It’s taken away from this weekend’s women in league round.
And the fallout’s hurt people along the way who are longing to feel included in the games they love.
Ian Roberts, the first openly gay professional Rugby League player has written how he once wore his Manly jersey, as well as his sexuality, with pride — but that he now feels heartbroken. He thanked the club for taking the initiative, and said their heart was in the right place and that they had “operated from a place of love”.
He added, generously, that while trying not to feel angry about the stance the seven players have taken, he’d love the opportunity to converse with them about the broader need for the message.
“Sport is political, and it can change the world, the way the Olympian Peter Norman did supporting the Black Power salutes, the way Nicky Winmar did, the way Cathy Freeman did,” he wrote. “This is our turn.”
Visibility in sport is essential. Role models matter — in many ways, that is a huge part of the point behind professional sport in the first place.
As Pride in Sport noted in their statement on the issue, for LGBTQ+ people, statements by key organisations and role models can make a massive difference to removing the barriers to participation, and for helping people to feel safe and included in these sports.
The advocacy group notes that in sport, including Rugby league, participants can often feel they need to censor themselves, which can lead to significant impacts on their mental and physical sport.
“This is why initiatives like Pride rounds and Pride jerseys matter. They are a statement from an organisation, signaling that a sport wants people to feel safe to be who they are. These initiatives certainly don’t fix everything, but they are important symbols.”
It’s clear Manly could have managed this better. The Sea Eagles’ coach Des Hasler has apologised for how the club handled the jersey, declaring in a press conference on Wednesday that it was a “significant mistake”. He said he feels for the players, and conceded they weren’t included in the discussion and should be consulted.
“The jersey intent was to support the advocacy and human rights pertaining to gender, race, culture, ability and LGBTQ movements,” he said.
“Sadly the execution of what was intended to be an extremely important initiate was poor.” But ultimately the players sitting out on the game should reflect on their stance, and re-consider what else they’re willing to put up with: gambling ads especially.”
What we now know is that 17 players will take the field in tomorrow night’s game. They will wear the jersey.
Seven players will miss out. Their stance is known. The damage in many ways is already done. They may look to have that conversation with Roberts, or perhaps Pride In Sport. They may want to reconsider then their stance on other things that are promoted on their jerseys, like gambling.
The pride jerseys ultimately signal a fundamental value: that everyone should feel safe to play, says Pride in sport.
That value should be non-controversial. The fact it still is controversial shows just how much work we have to do.