Opinion The Manly players have the right to reject the ‘Pride’ jersey, but there are consequences

The Manly players have the right to reject the ‘Pride’ jersey, but there are consequences

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By the time the Manly Sea Eagles took to the field Thursday night, their showcase of inclusivity had already been sullied by seven players whose actions have hurt their club, their sport, and a big cohort of young Australians struggling to find themselves.

Yes, they should have been consulted about the club’s plan to introduce a ‘Pride’ jersey.

The result, however, would probably have been the same. A group of elite footballers – whom many of our children see as sporting legends – publicly eschewing a message that is now written into our statute books, preached in homilies, the subject of millions of dollars in taxpayers’ dollars and at the heart of school wellbeing programs frantically working to stem the tsunami of mental health challenges around identity, self-confidence and belief.

No one disputes their right to refuse to endorse publicly a message of inclusion. But that handful of players need to consider the consequences of that too.

They are paid big bucks, fill their pockets with endorsements, and run onto a field each weekend knowing that many of our children are screaming them on to victory. Their expertise is football, but their views really matter.

So what do their actions say to those young children who might be questioning their own identity? What does it say to their mum-and-dad fan base, trying to raise children in a world where hate wins more headlines than love and where a pandemic has stolen connectedness and delivered isolation?

Yes, they should have been consulted. But how do they see wearing a jersey that encourages kindness running counter to their religious or cultural beliefs, but proudly advertise a gambling company, and play at a home ground sponsored by a brewing company?

Of course they are entitled to their private beliefs, and this move forced them to make those beliefs – however unreconstructed – public. The club and its management are copping the consequences of that lack of consultation.

But that, surely, is a venial sin when it sits beside the knowledge that a group of young men still carry these views – and are prepared to give up so much to ensure we all hear them? As a nation, we are not as progressive, perhaps, as we boast.

And yes, they should have been consulted, but they should also understand that their public views do not start and finish with missing last night’s match.

Manly Ian Roberts
Manly great Ian Roberts was heartbroken by the players’ decision. Photo: Channel 10

In schools today, teachers are shaking their heads – their message of inclusion muted by the strong stance of their students’ sporting heroes.

Ian Roberts, a Manly great and the first openly gay professional NRL player, is heartbroken.

“Sport is political, and it can change the world, the way Olympian Peter Norman did supporting the Black Power salutes, the way Nicky Winmar did, the way Cathy Freeman did. This is our turn,’’ he wrote this week.

There are no winners here. This has already been costly to the club, and its supporters, and to the code more broadly.

But chances are it will be more costly to this group of young men than anyone else.

A few of them, going on all the statistics the world over, will discover that down the track, when one of their own children or nieces or nephews or godchildren comes to them with a message that they are different.

I wonder, when they look back, whether they’ll consider the power they had this week to heal, not hurt?