Reuben Garrick shows off the “Everyone in League” jersey which the Manly Sea Eagles will wear agiainst the Sydney Roosters in Round 20, 2022.
The NRL is probably relieved that the situation at Manly has taken the focus off a disastrous 24 hours following the Bunker debacle and Graham Annesley’s weekly press conference.
It’s probably why Peter V’Landys was happy to give the issue oxygen on radio this morning, knowing that the headlines afterwards would focus on the hot issue instead of the officiating disaster that closed the round and for which everyone now seems to have escaped culpability.
But here we are again – a simple gesture with the goal of inclusivity has been shouted down by a deafening chorus that consists of the same voices that get their backs up every time a move like this is considered.
In the same week that Brad Pitt was universally applauded for wearing a skirt, no less!
Regardless of the situation at Manly, the issues of inclusion, religion, being woke and everything else are back in the rugby league spotlight after seven Manly players opted to boycott this weekend’s game against the Roosters rather than wear a jersey promoting inclusivity that has rainbows on it.
Some say it’s because they weren’t consulted, some say it’s because of religious beliefs. It’s probably both, but one plays a bigger role than the other.
I could wax lyrical about the hypocrisy of religion when it comes to inclusion and the regular double standards perpetuated by the institutions their followers devoutly respect, but people will just get offended and tell you this isn’t about that anyway.
But make no mistake – we have been regularly told, for a long time, to tolerate bigotry and discrimination under the pretence of respect for religion. I should know, I went to Catholic School.
Yet none of these seven players, or those members of the public who share similar beliefs, would ever acknowledge that this ‘respect’ is a two-way street – and to insinuate as much makes you a terrible person who is clearly anti-religion.
The cost of consultation
The players claim they weren’t consulted by the club prior to the announcement. While this is the closest thing to valid criticism, so what? Are we expected to believe that every decision related to the kit and the team has been run through and approved by all members of the Top 30?
Could they have been consulted about this? Sure. Did the club make a mistake if they didn’t let players know? Yes.
But is it so hard to believe that the club didn’t think there would be an issue with some rainbow stripes on a jersey for 80-minutes as they try to promote a positive message? Would a loving God really care that much?
I guess so.
Are all players consulted every Indigenous round, every Anzac round, about the new jerseys? Did they have any objection to the old Marvel round? Would they speak up if they were opposed?
Have these religious players been consulted about the naming rights of the stadium or the main jersey sponsor? These categories are regularly dominated by alcohol and betting agencies – what does the bible say about gambling and booze? Have their beliefs been taken into consideration by the club in those respects? What about the tattoos they adorn themselves in? Have they even recognised the contradictions or brought them to anyone’s attention?
Sorry, I said I wouldn’t go on about it.
But by the same token – were gay people ever considered or consulted when the church was deciding its own internal policies? Have they ever been? No.
They were abused, exonerated and murdered – and they still are today, all over the world.
And you’re up in arms about a rainbow jersey.
Has the game ‘always been about inclusion’?
It’s a common line espoused by everyone from PVL to former players to social media experts. But is it true?
The NRL has done an excellent job with inclusivity in many respects. Engagement with Indigenous communities has long been something the NRL can be proud of. The organisation does wonders for local communities as well, supporting grassroots organisations and kids all over the country. The recent growth and support the NRLW has received has also been commendable.
The introduction of the no-fault stand-down policy was world-leading in its thinking, and the decision to go ahead with Macklemore’s performance at the 2017 NRL Grand Final showed a commitment to keeping the game associated positively with social progress.
On the evidence, the NRL has actually done a pretty good job in its approach to inclusivity.
But every one of these instances has been met with fervent hyperbole and resistance from the same group of people – a noisy (largely old, white and male) minority whose terrible and often ill-informed opinions are given plenty of screen time and column inches.
When Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker raised their concerns about the national anthem given their past experiences with racism as young Indigenous males, they were branded ungrateful and told to “have thicker skin” and “learn to live with it” – by the same people who are upset about a rainbow jersey.
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 22: Latrell Mitchell of the Indigenous All-Stars performs an Indigenous dance during the NRL match between the Indigenous All-Stars and the New Zealand Maori Kiwis All-Stars at Cbus Super Stadium on February 22, 2020 on the Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)
When the NRL decided to support these players and moved to have the national anthem withdrawn from State of Origin, the same people campaigned and complained so wildly about the affront to our collective identity that the Prime Minister got on the phone to PVL and made sure the decision was reversed. The same people who are upset about a rainbow jersey.
When Macklemore performed at the 2017 Grand Final with an inclusive message that was well received and threatened no one, these voices again complained for days that the NRL was becoming a ‘go woke, go broke’ organisation.
When the footage of Macklemore was used in an ad to promote the game that also featured a same-sex kiss, again, it was the same voices that got their panties in a bunch and mobilised their noisy mobs. The same people who are upset about a rainbow jersey.
It should also be noted that Manly didn’t use the term LGBTQAI in their initial release about the rainbow strip – the jersey was targeted towards an overall theme of inclusion. The acronyms were actually used most heavily in certain press reports with a focus on upsetting conservative readers and driving engagement – and you’ll never guess who wrote them.
It should come as no surprise to find some of the same names once again front and centre of the debate, setting the agenda and shouting the loudest.
Last night the issue was discussed on 100% Footy, and a clip was shared of former Sharks captain and Origin veteran Paul Gallen claiming that the jersey wasn’t needed, then suggesting (as many have since yesterday) that ‘it’s 2022, everyone accepts there are different people in life’ before criticising Manly and getting involved in an ugly shouting match that was labelled ‘passionate’.
When Paul Gallen hysterically yells on national TV it’s called passion – but when regular people employ that same level of passion to argue for progress they truly believe in, they’re derided and called a snowflake.
The NRL has been admirable in its approach to the issue of inclusion, but it’s clear that the outer edges of the organisation, including the agenda-setting media and a large chorus of fans, have been a constant impediment to progress on this front.
Culture club double standards
A lot has been said about cultural respect in the last 24 hours, trying to keep the idea separate from religion in the current debate.
The only cultural aspects that are affected by anything to do with pride are the aspects tied heavily to religious belief – but if defenders of the playing group want to throw in a term like culture as a justification, let’s look at what rugby league has told us about ‘culture’ in the last few years.
In the face of allegations of sexual misconduct, violence against women and a long list of many other morally questionable offences committed – or alleged to have been – by members of the NRL fraternity, they’re regularly surrounded by the unconditional support of their playing group.
Former Panther Tyrone May received support while facing multiple charges of distributing intimate images without consent. Despite being found guilty he still attracted controversy following an unrepentant social media post that was supported by members of the playing group. He was ultimately sacked by the club. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
The culture is to protect their own, seemingly at any cost and regardless of the heinous allegations that have been made.
I’m not here to suggest that’s wrong. There’s a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that comes from being immersed in these tight groups and the presumption of innocence should always stand. Yet it should be noted that the individuals who support the offender also make clear they don’t support the action. It’s a position that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but it’s found regularly.
Look at the way Penrith players supported Tyrone May’s unrepentant social media post after the 2021 Grand Final – despite the fact he was found guilty of the charges of distributing intimate images without consent.
So why does that support for domestic abusers, drink-drivers and other convicted criminals suddenly vanish when it comes to this idea of inclusivity? What does religion teach us about those who commit these offences that entitles them to more support than people who simply wants to feel secure in their identity?
Stop trying to defend it, like Gallen did, by claiming “it’s 2022!”.
Just this year we’ve had a player suspended for using a homophobic slur. The US Supreme Court has overturned abortion rights. The year, quite clearly, has absolutely nothing to do with where we are as a society. It’s also a terribly lazy point made by those who are happy with where they are and afraid to change it for someone else’s benefit because it might affect their standing.
Just because time progresses, it doesn’t mean society does as well.
Imagine if a player or two decided that they didn’t want to wear the Anzac jersey because they were anti-war. It’s a rational position in and of itself.
But would we be screaming “It’s 2022! Freedom of choice?” – absolutely not. That player would likely be dragged through the mud and forced into compliance by usual braying mob. Is it really that different? Didn’t our soldiers fight for the very freedoms we’re still keen to deny parts of society?
Paul Gallen knows what year it is. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)
The same old song
The comments from the outraged regularly repeat the same points.
“It’s only a small percentage of the population, why do we have to keep acknowledging them?” you ask. That’s true! And yet like a lot of other minority groups they are still marginalised every day in society.
What people fail to realise is that just because the theme might celebrate a minority, it doesn’t mean you’re excluded. Everyone can take part, even you – the person who holds the discriminatory belief! They want to include you despite your unfounded contempt for them.
What you’re really saying is ‘I don’t want to celebrate inclusion’, and that’s another thing entirely.
Women in League round isn’t solely attended by women, you can still go. It’s about celebrating our collective identity together in a divisive world, not excluding one group for the sake of another! It’s not that hard to comprehend.
“They’re just cashing in,” you might say cynically – and you’re probably right! The jersey has already sold out in an impressive display of public support.
But whether they truly want to affect change or just make a buck, that’s the club’s right. Most of these clubs have six or seven jerseys every year including home and away, Indigenous round, Women in League round, Retro round, Heritage round, Anzac round and more. What’s one more?
Clubs need to find ways to raise revenue, and they always have. If it hasn’t been a problem for you until now, don’t worry – it still isn’t. You’ve just been hoodwinked.
“I’m sick of having the LGBTQ agenda shoved down my throat” – I saw this one yesterday. Look, if you haven’t accepted the trajectory of western society by now that’s more your fault than anyone else’s. It’s not like the gay rights movement has just suddenly sprung up.
It’s just one week. It’s not going to have any adverse impact on you. You don’t have to buy the jersey, you don’t even have to watch the game. Come next week it’ll be a desperate memory as everyone sits and waits for the next outrage.
Imagine being a gay player, thinking of coming out, and realising that you would get less support than a former convict despite the fact you’ve lived a good life and played by the rules (plus, IT’S 2022!).
Would you still do it? Especially after this week?
Now imagine being a straight, Christian player who suddenly finds out a long-time teammate is gay. Does that affect your perception of someone you’ve already known for years? Would you be mad at them for lying to you? Or would you reflect and examine why they couldn’t tell you the truth?
I’m not saying that either of those thought experiments is going to deliver an answer that will help the game or individuals move forward from this issue. But if we could all take a moment to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and develop some empathy for one another, perhaps we could start heading in the right direction.
The jersey idea was a simple gesture in truth, but the damage the aftermath has had on the matter of inclusion and diversity will likely remain long after the jersey is a distant memory.
Disclaimer: The author is a 37-year-old straight white male from Western Sydney. If he can wrap his head around inclusivity, surely it can’t be that hard.