How Manly’s pride jersey saga took a toll on Pasifika and LGBTIQ+ community groups

The Manly Sea Eagles intended for a momentous occasion for the wider National Rugby League (NRL) community to bolster diversity and inclusion.
Instead, experts say the club can take lessons from what was a masterclass on how not to approach complex intersectional issues of faith and sexuality in the workplace.
The Sydney-based club was embroiled in controversy this week after .
The “Everyone in League” jersey was launched on Monday ahead of the Women in League round, featuring rainbow stripes generally known as a symbol of LGBTIQ+ pride.

Coach Des Hasler fronted the media on Tuesday, apologising “sincerely” for the “confusion, discomfort and pain” to his playing group, the LGBTIQ+ community and the wider rugby league.

“Sadly this poor management and project management caused significant confusion and disappointment and pain for many people, in particular those groups whose human rights we were in fact attempting to support,” Hasler said.
Hasler conceded that failing to consult with the team or coaching staff about the jersey was an oversight from management fuelled “negative news” in a round aimed to celebrate women in the league.

The drama has led to huge disappointment from Pasifika communities, some of which have been perceived as homophobic for their religious values. Likewise, the LGBTIQ+ community have expressed heartbreak at the player boycott, who feel unaccepted in the league.

Pasifika culture and sexuality at a crossroads

Six of the seven players that made the decision to boycott the pride jersey hail from the Pacific Islands, a region that has strong ties to religion and culture.
Jioji Ravulo, chair of social work and social studies at the University of Sydney, said to understand the players’ decision, it’s important to ask: “How did we get here in the first place?”
Professor Ravulo, who is Fijian-Indigenous and is involved with the NRL to facilitate cultural awareness training for the players, said that Pasifika communities have “learned a lot of these rigid views on sexuality from white Western perspectives”.

“Prior to colonisation in the Pacific Islands, many of us, as sexual beings, our sexuality was fluid,” he said.

Jioji Ravulo has worked with the NRL for more than a decade in the education and wellbeing sector. Credit: The University of Sydney

“The idea that we create tension around our sexuality is something that I think Western society has placed on us.

“Once we enable people to feel safe for their cultural diversity and its differences in these spaces, this is where we’re going to see a lot of change and better attitudes towards inclusion.”

‘These boys are not there to hurt anybody’

Samoan pastor Mafi Mata’afa said that these players have been unfairly condemned as being homophobic but their complex religious and cultural connection wasn’t considered before the jersey was launched.

The Christian beliefs of these players are not just turning up to church on Sunday. This is them.

Mafi Mata’afa

“These boys are not there to hurt anybody. They are just there to say to their club, ‘we have a belief. We have a view. And we want to be listened to,'” he said.
Mr Mata’afa said he commended the players for defending their beliefs, despite the “enormous” backlash they knew they would receive, as well as the psychological impact it can have on them.

“I believe that there is a very harsh consequence on these young boys … This can be very dangerous to some of them.”

A man in a suit stands in front of a poster of The Last Supper and a cross.

Mafi Mata’afa is a Samoan pastor based in Sydney’s west, who has commended the seven players for making a decision in line with their values. Source: SBS News / Felicity Davey

“The Christian beliefs of these players are not just turning up to church on Sunday. This is them. And to tell someone to change you just by making them, after an announcement – it’s very poor.”

Professor Ravulo said religious freedoms “can’t exist within a vacuum”, explaining that the intersections of culture and gender must co-exist in the conversation for to create an accepting culture in the NRL.

‘It should never have come to this’

Trans Samoan woman and co-secretary of the International Lesbian Gay Association (ILGA) World, Tuisina Ymania Brown said the controversy around the jerseys has “totally tarnished” the significance of LGBTIQ+ inclusivity.
She said there was a “total lack of leadership” in the management that led to disastrous consequences for both the Pasifika and LGBTIQ+ communities she is a strong part of.

“It should never have come to this,” Ms Brown said.

Portrait of Ymania smiling

Tuisina Ymania Brown is a Samoan trans leader for the LGBTIQ+ and Pasifika communities. Source: SBS News / Felicity Davey

“The appetite for the Australian people is they want inclusivity. They want to support LGBT people. They want that for us. But sports codes, they need to do their part.”

Diversity Council of Australia CEO Lisa Annese said if the club spoke with the playing group before it was “sprung” onto them, this drama could have been avoided.
“I think that a responsible organisation would try to have a discussion with each individual to try to understand what their concerns are,” she said.

Ms Brown called out the NRL, Manly’s club management and all sports codes to learn from this lesson, “lift your game” and for the “leaders to act like the adults, sit down and fix this”.

With almost half of players in the NRL comprising Pasifika and Maori heritage, an important step is to bring Pasifika community leaders to the table to avoid anyone being excluded both on and off the field, she said.

“And isn’t that what we all want, as Australians who play sports and who love and follow sport? Isn’t that what we all want to be treated the same as everyone else? Nobody wants to be excluded and [told], ‘ah, you gotta sit this one out.'”

Is NRL ready for a Pride round?

Australian Rugby League Commission chair Peter V’Landys has kept the option open for a Pride round to be launched as soon as next year but the Manly jersey saga has raised questions about whether it will be possible.
Mr Mata’afi couldn’t be sure if prior consultation would change all players’ views to participate in a Pride round, but he knew a conversation could certainly help.
“It’s important to sit down and talk. It’s important to allow them to express what they believe, and then come to some sort of informed conclusion somewhere of what to do.”
Ms Anesse said it shouldn’t be rolled out when people get the conversation rolling.
“It’s possible that with some education some people would be brought along the journey.”

Additional reporting by Tom Canetti.

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