Australian rugby league players vow to boycott key match over new ‘pride’ jersey sparking furious row that has dragged in an openly gay club legend, league bosses and the Prime Minister
- Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, based north of Sydney, unveiled new ‘pride’ strip
- Rainbow jersey supposed to reflect ‘inclusivity and diversity’, team owner said
- But seven players have since vowed to boycott a crunch game on Thursday night rather than wear the top on ‘religious and cultural’ grounds
- Move has sparked vicious debate that has even dragged in the Prime Minister
Seven Australian rugby league players have vowed to boycott a crunch match after their team announced they would be wearing a new rainbow pride jersey, sparking a furious debate.
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, based north of Sydney, unveiled the strip – which features rainbow piping on the neck, sleeves and around the sponsor logo – yesterday morning, saying it showed support for ‘inclusivity and diversity’.
But just hours later club bosses were forced to call a crisis meeting with players who said they would refuse to wear the top on ‘religious and cultural grounds’, having failed to consult them on the decision ahead of time.
Now, what was meant to be a symbol of togetherness has instead become one of division as an openly gay club legend, league bosses, radio presenters, and even the Prime Minister have been dragged into a vicious debate overshadowing the sport.
Meanwhile Manly faces calling up reserve players for Thursday night’s game that could prove crucial for their chances of winning the league, after owner Scott Penn categorically ruled out dropping the strip.
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, an Australian Rugby League team based north of Sydney, unveiled a rainbow pride strip early Monday to celebrate ‘inclusivity and diversity’
Seven players have vowed to boycott a key game Thursday night rather than wear the strip on ‘religious and cultural’ grounds, including wingers Christian Tuipulotu (left) and Jason Saab
Mr Penn, a Harvard-educated multi-millionaire who spends half the year living in the woke capital of Brooklyn, New York, said: ‘It was never just about pride. It was about saying we want everyone in the game and making them feel they can get involved.
‘We’re not going to force them to play, but we’re committed to the jersey and we’re committed to inclusion. We’re not walking away from our position.’
The controversy began early Monday, when Manly unveiled the ‘Everyone in League’ jersey in partnership with brand Dynasty Sport.
A one-off strip designed only for Thursday night’s game, it tied into National Rugby League branding which was promoting Thursday’s games as the ‘Women in League’ round to acknowledge the role women play in sport.
Team bosses said the strip is the ‘first of its kind’ and showcases the role sport plays in bringing people of all walks of life together.
It was modelled by three players – Sean Keppie, Kieran Foran and Reuben Garrick – in promotional material.
But the mood quickly soured as seven other players – named locally as Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolutau Koula and Toafofoa Sipley – refused to wear it.
League rules forbid players from the same team from wearing different strips, meaning bosses either had to drop the top or drop the players.
A crisis meeting was scheduled for Tuesday to resolve the dispute, but as the news made headlines around the country talks were brought forward to Monday night.
Mr Penn is understood to have phoned in from New York for the meeting where he told the players he would not back down.
It was then left to coach Des Hasler and captain Daly Cherry-Evans to face a grilling from the media after the talks, and explain a player boycott would go ahead.
Exact numbers are still unclear, with three of the sports stars said to be reconsidering – though the other four appear to remain unmoved.
Mr Hasler found himself in an impossible position during the press conference, insisting he supports the players’ right to protest as well as the new jersey.
Alternately quoting Gandhi and recounting an anecdote about an autistic friend, he admitted the club had made ‘errors’ in how the shirt was announced and blamed ‘mismanagement’ for undermining team unity.
‘The execution of what was intended to be an extremely important initiative was poor,’ he said.
‘There was little consultation or collaboration between key stakeholders, both inside and outside the club.
‘Our intent was to be caring and compassionate towards all diverse groups who face inclusion issues daily.
Manly owner and chairman Scott Penn is adamant the club won’t back down over its pride jersey, despite seven players refusing to take the field in it
Club legend Ian Roberts, who in 1995 was the first-ever rugby league player to come out as gay, said the embarrassing situation would be felt most by the area’s LGBTQI+ community
At a press conference after the church service, Mr Albanese praised Roberts, the first NRL player to come out as gay and a personal friend of the PM
‘However, instead of enhancing tolerance, and acceptance, we may have hindered this.’
Manly club legend Ian Roberts – who became the first rugby league player to come out as gay in 1995 – led reaction to the news, saying the situation ‘breaks my heart’.
‘It’s sad and uncomfortable. As an older gay man, this isn’t unfamiliar. I did wonder whether there would be any religious push back,’ Roberts told the Daily Telegraph.
‘I can promise you every young kid on the northern beaches who is dealing with their sexuality would have heard about this.’
Radio personalities were also quick to weigh in, with Mark ‘MG’ Geyer – himself a former footballer – throwing his weight behind Roberts and the club.
‘Would I wear the jersey if I was playing? Bloody oath I would,’ he told listeners of his breakfast show on Tuesday.
‘The best player to come out of Manly was Ian Roberts. I’d wear the jersey just for him, for being the only player brave enough to come out and say… I’m gay.’
Prime Minister Antony Albanese also weighed in to support team bosses, saying ‘it’s a good thing that sport is more inclusive’ and that Australians should ‘respect everyone for who they are’.
But Paul Gallen, a veteran of the sport, slammed Manly for ‘overshadowing’ Women in League week with the jersey – saying the team should have ‘left it at that’.
‘I think everyone accepts that there are different people in life, people have different beliefs,’ he said.
‘I don’t know why they wanted to promote this, to be honest … I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.’
Peter V’landys, league boss of the NRL, also weighed in – saying players have ‘every right’ to boycott on religious grounds while vowing ‘repercussions’ for the team.
Israel Folau was exiled by Australia three years ago following his homophobic remarks
‘We respect everyone. It doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is, what your belief in marriage is, what your race is, what your colour is, we respect you as a human being,’ he said.
‘Those players are aware of our policy in that regard. If they’ve got a religious belief and they don’t wish to play, I respect that and I respect all the players.’
Manly currently sit ninth in NRL table, level on points with the Sydney Roosters one place above them and Canberra Raiders one place below them.
The top eight teams will advance to playoffs which will decide the league winner.
Manly play the Roosters on Thursday – one of just six games remaining in the season – giving them the chance to put clean air between them and their closest rivals.
It is not the first time Australian rugby has found itself at the centre of arguments over inclusivity in sport.
Israel Folau, who played rugby league but was best-known playing for Australia in rugby union, was kicked off the national team in 2019 for his anti-LGBT views.
The full-back, who had already been warned over posts he made on social media, had his contract torn up after writing that ‘hell awaits’ homosexuals.
Folau’s full post read: ‘Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.’
‘It was made clear to him that any social media posts or commentary that is in any way disrespectful to people because of their sexuality will result in disciplinary action,’ Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle said at the time.
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