On Tuesday morning, a few minutes after Manly Sea Eagles head coach Des Hasler apologised for the club’s mishandling of their ‘inclusion’ jersey, captain Daly Cherry-Evans was asked a question.
“Have you ever heard bigoted views from amongst [the] playing group with regard to the LGBTQI community?”
It was the question many had wondered after seven Manly players opted out of wearing the rainbow-themed jersey in Thursday night’s clash against the Roosters.
They cited only “religious and cultural reasons” for their decision, which is sometimes seen as a pretext for discriminatory attitudes and behaviours.
In a media conference on Tuesday, Manly captain Daly Cherry-Evans unknowingly revealed why inclusion initiatives in rugby league matter.(Getty Images: Matt King)
“Stuff like this isn’t the topic of conversation unless we’re put in this situation,” Cherry-Evans said, a little sheepishly.
“We’re experiencing a lot of things for the first time as a playing group.”
It seemed like an innocuous – if awkwardly-worded – answer. Indeed, there were no follow-ups from media and his response was soon swept away among other questions.
But Cherry-Evans’s comment was arguably the most revealing of the lot, because not only did it highlight exactly how Manly mishandled their jersey roll-out, it also illustrated a growing problem when it comes to inclusion initiatives in sport: performative ally-ship without the internal work aimed at genuine and long-lasting cultural change.
LGBTQIA+ representation in men’s sport
Although roughly one in 25 Australians identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, there are currently no openly gay male players in the NRL, a group that totals more than 5,000 people across 17 clubs.
This is not unique to rugby league: in Australia’s top five domestic men’s competitions – the AFL, NRL, Big Bash, A-League Men and NBL – just one active player, Josh Cavallo of Adelaide United, is openly gay.
That trend extends to men’s sports leagues elsewhere in the world, with only a handful of current athletes such as Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders and Luke Prokop of the Nashville Predators open about their sexualities.
Subsequently, men’s sport is often referred to as “the last closet” due to its disproportionate lack of representation of LGBTQIA+ people relative to many other industries – including women’s sport – as well as the general population.
The reasons for this under-representation are varied and intertwined. They stem from cultures of hyper-masculinity in sport, the normalisation of gender roles, the frequent use of homophobic and sexist language as part of locker-room banter and abuse, and the relationship between sport, power, and violence; things that affect all levels of the pyramid and result in a significant drop-out rate of LGBTQIA+ men and boys from sport.
This dearth of representation explains why former Manly player Ian Roberts – the first and currently only male NRL player to come out during their career – has been the loudest LGBTQIA+ voice this past week, despite the fact he retired more than two decades ago.
The NRL have become more active in the LGBTQIA+ space in recent years, including entering a float into Mardi Gras, becoming a participant in the Pride In Sport Index, updating their Inclusion Framework to reflect various sexualities and gender identities, and offering education sessions for elite and community players around combating homophobia.
However, the fact that LGBTQIA+ issues are, in Cherry-Evans’s words, “not a topic of conversation” in the club’s daily working environment, as well as the past week’s controversy around a rainbow jersey, has served as a reminder of the multiple cultural barriers still faced by queer male players in the sport, it is clear that more still needs to be done.
Inclusion starts from within
At the heart of the problem is the disconnect between public statements of inclusion and the work that is done behind the scenes to make inclusion part of an organisation’s everyday environment.
For Erik Denison, the head researcher of the Sport Inclusion Project at Monash University and lead author of Out On The Fields, the first and largest international study on homophobia in sports, the first warning-sign that Manly was focused more on optics than on genuine cultural change was that the club had not consulted its own players in the lead-up to the release.
“When I heard about Manly and the backlash, my immediate reaction was frustration,” Denison told the ABC.
“They had a chance to do this properly, but they chose to do it as a marketing campaign as opposed to doing it in a meaningful way.
“If Manly had started, from the beginning, by talking to the players – bringing in players like Ian Roberts to talk to them about what it means – that would have been the first step.
“You also need to get captains and leadership groups involved. This must be led by the players. It can’t be top-down. Pride games were invented to be player-driven initiatives, they’re not meant to be dictated to players from above.
“It’s about them having engagement with people who’ve experienced discrimination, who’ve been harmed by it, sharing statistics.
“That education piece is really critical. You have to lead with conversations first. That’s the whole point of these games, to lead the conversation.
“It’s not an external person coming in and delivering some education program, which our research has found doesn’t work. It’s encouraging those in that environment to have informed and authentic conversations about these things with each other.
“That’s how we undo problems around homophobia, sexism, racism, and all kinds of difference.”
Not only did Denison find the club’s process problematic, he also noted the confusing messaging around the overall initiative, evidenced by the fact that the jersey was not intended to be about Pride at all, but rather about “celebrating diversity and inclusion” as part of a Women In League round.
That vague messaging, for Denison, defeats the entire purpose of inclusion initiatives, which are meant to be specifically targeted at changing certain cultures and behaviours within sport.
“Pride games were invented 20 years ago to raise awareness of homophobic discrimination in sport that is harmful or exclusionary,” Dr Denison said.
“They weren’t designed to ‘celebrate inclusion’ or celebrate every diverse group, like what Manly seemed to think they were. That’s not what they’re used for, and that’s not what the science shows they’re used for.
Multiple sports clubs and leagues have created their own Pride initiatives over the years, but without accompanying education and clear messaging, they risk becoming tokenistic.(Getty Images: Kelly Barnes)
“When you frame it as celebrating everything in the world, you don’t actually improve anything for anyone. But, if you focus on specifically changing one problem — which is what they’re used for — you actually benefit so many different groups.”
It’s a dilemma that Manly and the NRL will seemingly continue to have, with Manly owner and chairman Scott Penn telling media on Friday that he would like to see the league hold a “Respect Round” or “Everyone In League Round” that celebrates “mutual respect and inclusiveness of everybody.”
“People think they’re inclusive already in sport, even though they’re not,” Denison said.
“So why would you say that you’re celebrating inclusion? When we know they think they already are? But then why would you need a campaign like this in the first place?
“This isn’t about celebrating inclusion and diversity; those are terms that no one even really understands what they mean. It’s a completely pointless PR and marketing exercise. You need to be specific if you want to create change.
“These are fundamental, systemic cultural problems in sport where they don’t even recognise that these problems exist. So if they can’t even view sport for what it is – a place that reinforces some unhealthy behaviours – that’s what’s disappointed me most. There’s not really a way to help them because they do these tokenistic things and then they cause harm and we move backwards.”
The power of Pride games
Australian professional sport is increasingly embracing its role as a platform to highlight social issues and spark conversations about inclusion, equality, and diversity.
The AFL and AFLW have hosted league-wide Pride Rounds in recent seasons, while other competitions like the A-Leagues and Big Bash have hosted individual Pride games.
Public initiatives like Pride games matter, Denison says, because other types of corporate ‘inclusion and diversity programs’ often run internally by organisations do not have any proven effects on reducing discriminatory language or behaviours.
The AFLW’s Pride Round was played from January 21-23.(Getty: Kelly Defina)
In fact, studies from Harvard and Princeton have found that these anti-bias-type programs – which were invented primarily by judges and corporate bodies as a way of protecting themselves from lawsuits – can actually have the opposite effect, with some workplaces seeing an increase in discriminatory language and behaviours after participating in those programs.
Further, a UK Parliamentary Inquiry in 2017 found that sporting governing bodies’ vague public commitments to create inclusive environments resulted in very little real-world change or increased representation.
Pride games, though, are different.
Denison’s own work has found clubs that hold Pride games see a noticeable reduction in homophobic language – so long as the game is accompanied by genuine, player-led dialogue amongst participants – because they disrupt deeper cultures that normalise discriminatory attitudes and behaviours within sport.
“There’s such strong evidence that boys and men who use homophobic and sexist language and badgering and are immersed in sexist cultures are six times [more likely] to rape a woman three years later,” Denison said.
“That’s because this language and this culture normalises gender-based violence. So when you call someone a ‘fag’ or a ‘poof’, that has nothing to do with the person being gay: it has to do with them being a failed man and not living up to the standards of masculinity.
“The only thing we have evidence of, that we know works to drive change to this culture, is Pride games. We’ve tried education, it does nothing. We’ve tried poster campaigns, it does nothing.
“What seems to occur when a team holds a Pride game is it disrupts the masculine norms and corrects misperceptions among men that others around them are toxic individuals, because if they’re willing to put on a rainbow jersey, that disrupts the cultural forces in that environment.
“Two separate studies found that clubs that hold pride games use about 50 per cent less homophobic language and around 30 per cent less sexist language than those that don’t.
“There are no other differences at these clubs, it’s just that they held this event and it disrupted the norms that support so many problems in society from gender-based violence to suicide to self-harm, not just of LGBTQ+ people, but also heterosexual men.”
Changing the story
With the NRL seemingly intent on broadening its inclusion initiative to a league-wide round next season, there are a number of lessons that should be learned from the Manly jersey saga.
The first, as Denison says, is the importance of clear and targeted messaging that starts with the players themselves.
Not only would this allow players who have questions or hesitations to be actively involved in the process, but it may also potentially avoid the racist undertones of the past week’s commentary, where it was assumed that Pasifika people – who made up the majority of the players who opted out of wearing the jersey, and who also carry the trauma of colonisation and the disruptions it has caused to their pre-colonial constructions of gender and sexuality – are necessarily bigoted towards LGBTQIA+ people.
Most of the Manly players who stood aside from wearing the jersey were from Pasifika backgrounds, as are many of their fans.(Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)
“The problem here is no one explained what the purpose of these games are to the players,” Dr Denison said.
“We have not found that [backlash] with Pacific Islander players ourselves. The idea that this is a specific cultural group that is against ending discrimination, we haven’t found that evidence.
“People are giving it a false wrong choice. No one has explained the purpose of the event. No one’s explained the benefits. No one has explained how important they are [in] driving change to sport culture.
“I think there’s an example of racism going on here, too. No one’s explained to these individuals what this is all about and then, when they don’t understand what the purpose is, they’re being criticised for it, even though no one has helped them understand that this actually doesn’t conflict with their culture.
“No one helped these players at Manly, and then there’s this pile-on that’s totally unhealthy and totally unhelpful. A lot of that hasn’t come from people in the LGBTQI community, either. If you want to actually make the world better, you need to engage people and help them along the journey. It takes time.”
Indeed, while much of the commentary has created a false binary between LGBTQIA+ inclusion and religious beliefs, Denison says his own work with Pasifika men in rugby union shows that changing the story and engaging with players in ways they can relate to can often lead to cooperation in Pride initiatives.
The University of Melbourne rugby union club is one of the only rugby clubs in Australia to participate in Pride Cup, aimed at shifting norms and attitudes around LGBTQIA+ people in sport.(Supplied: Rugby Victoria)
“With rugby [union], we went back to basics,” he said.
“What are Pride games invented to do? They’re meant to stop discriminatory behaviour and make sports safe. No more, no less. So we worked with the rugby clubs involved and made sure they used the right messaging. This isn’t about celebrating inclusion. These are meaningless terms that nobody even really knows what they mean. It’s a completely pointless PR and marketing exercise.
“So we just focus on the stats: suicide, self-harm and talk about how you can be religious, but your job as a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist is not to do harm to others and to protect those who are downtrodden. Every religion says the same thing: your job is to comfort the afflicted.
“Evangelicals are very strong on ‘Jesus is there to help and serve’, right? That’s what we’ve said, repeatedly, when we engage with the Pacific community around rugby. That the core teachings of Jesus is to help the downtrodden and not judge people. That’s not your job. And that’s really resonated with them.
“This is about kids. Kids are being harmed by this language. We want to be role models and to change the sport. We know there’s good evidence around sexist language being a predictor of gender-based violence, so we can say these initiatives are helping kids and helping women and helping the LGBTQ+ community as well.”
But the biggest lesson that sport can take from the Manly saga is that celebrating inclusion can only occur after the difficult, time-consuming, and resource-heavy work behind the scenes that engages with the very same people who maintain cultures, structures, and norms that are exclusionary and unsafe for marginalised people.
This doesn’t just involve one-off initiatives, but ongoing conversations amongst all people (especially men) in sport that unpacks and critiques the various intersecting cultural forces like masculinity, gender roles, homophobia, and violence that can manifest in discrimination towards minority groups in everyday life.
So while the club’s intentions were admirable, the way Manly went about inclusion – using it as an exercise in optics and marketing instead of a genuine desire to change the sport’s culture – ultimately did more harm than good.
They cannot simply slap a rainbow on a jersey and expect inclusion to follow. Without providing people with the opportunity to truly understand why these initiatives are necessary in the first place, inclusion will only ever be what Cherry-Evans said: something nobody talks about unless they have to.
Source:: ABC News