The massive problem facing rugby league and rugby union.

You can’t please all the people all the time, but rugby codes are attempting to do just that. They are attempting to appease the LGBTQIA+ community and the devoutly religious at the same time.

Several Manly players recently refused to play in an upcoming NRL match to protest the club’s rainbow jersey promoting the LGBTQIA+ community, and the incident highlights the dangers of sporting organisations trying to appease every member of the community simultaneously.

Seven players are considering boycotting the game against the Sydney Roosters because they object to the promotion of LGBTQIA+ rights on religious grounds. All seven players are devoutly religious and mostly of Pasifika heritage. Players are also angry that they were not consulted about the ‘rainbow’ jersey and that they learned about it through social media.

Manly is the first NRL club to wear a rainbow jersey, and the incident highlights an issue confronting rugby league and rugby union into the future. The jersey was introduced in order to promote inclusion and diversity, and was created to include ‘everyone’ at the northern beaches club.

But does it include everyone?

Obviously not. It does not ‘include’ devout Christians and players of Pasifika heritage, the latter so strongly opposed to the jersey that they are willing to sit out an important game, and presumably sacrifice match payments. Manly is very, very unlikely to win the game against the Roosters without Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolutau Koula and Toafofoa Sipley. (That is, unless the Roosters players of Pasifika heritage also sit out the game in solidarity). It is being called a ‘must win’ game for the Sea Eagles as they try to finish inside the top 8, having already lost superstar Tom Trbojevic through injury.

Furthermore, the jersey is surely an example of bad timing. It will be worn during ‘Women in League’ round, and this debate will take most of the attention away from women and their great contribution to the game.

The conundrum

Does Manly appease a small section of their supporter base, or potential new supporters, or does the club appease an existing group of people on whom they are dependant? Put simply, you can’t win NRL (or Super Rugby) games without Pasifika players.

“Never just about pride”

Manly owner Scott Penn argues the jersey is not just about promoting the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, but in the modern context, ‘inclusion and diversity’ is used to welcome members of the LBGTQIA+ community. This is a large community, but it does not encompass everyone. It does not encompass the devoutly religious, and it does not include most rugby league and rugby union players of Pasifika heritage.

What is it really about?

Manly may be genuinely attempting to welcome members of the LGBTQIA+ community into a sport traditionally closed to non-heteronormative people – or the club could simply be chasing the lucrative Pink Dollar.

The issue will plague rugby league and union from now and into the future. Inclusion and diversity is becoming more prominent in social discourse every year, and every major organisation and corporation must declare a public policy on this subject. Sporting codes must also address the issue. At the same time, rugby league and rugby union must welcome and respect the Pasifika community.

Players of Pasifika heritage comprise about 50% of the registered players in the NRL, and the current Wallabies squad includes 16 of 34 players. Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua debuted in Super Rugby in 2022.

The women’s game is also not immune to the issue. In fact, it may be even more susceptible to the clash of two opposing ‘stakeholders’. Pasifika players also comprise a high percentage of players across the two rugby codes in the women’s game, but also includes more players in openly same-sex relationships. Interestingly, only one ARL/NRL player has ever come out as openly gay, and that was former Manly player Ian Roberts. Women’s football, meanwhile, has already experienced a conflict in this regard.

Haneen Zreika refused to wear the pride jersey when her Greater Western Sydney Giants AFLW team played against Western Bulldogs in 2022 because she is a devout Muslim. Zreika sat out that game. The AFL has a far longer history of supporting the LGBTQIA+ community than league or union, but was not immune to controversy. The Giants were stuck between reaching out to the LGBTQIA+ community, while appeasing the large Muslim community in their heartland of Western Sydney. That said, the incident passed without a great deal of controversy, especially compared to the controversy which surrounded Israel Folau’s social media comments.

Folau lost his contract with Rugby Australia after posting homophobic comments on social media. Folau held the same views while playing AFL (for the Giants) and NRL. Many former teammates from across the three codes ‘liked’ Folau’s comments and thus endorsed them. Many of those players were of Pasifika heritage.

Rugby Australia relies heavily on Pasifika talent, as outlined above, but also relies heavily on sponsorship dollars, much of which was coming from Qantas at the time of Folau’s faux pas. Qantas proudly welcomes the LGBTQIA+ community and is being run by the openly gay Alan Joyce. One cannot underestimate the influence of sponsors (and the Pink Dollar) in the decisions of sporting clubs regarding diversity and inclusion.

The future

Fellow NRL clubs will surely follow Manly’s precedent. It’s inevitable. Their players will have to make a choice – or be forced to make a choice, and the same applies to players in rugby union, many of whom have Pasifika heritage and are devoutly religious. The rugby codes, meanwhile, will have to negotiate a very complex situation in order to keep up with community attitudes and appease a community which sustains the standard of their ‘product’.

Image: NuNa