Now that much of the dust has settled since rugby league’s ‘Manly 7’, it’s time to take a deep breath and reflect on how we, as a contemporary multicultural, liberal democratic and based on rights, can better manage such conflicts.
If I was still teaching at university, I would use this as a case study for one of my courses called “contemporary society”. This provides us with an ideal case study of the kind of complex conflict that emerges in multilevel societies. And we must educate our future leaders to be able to unpack such controversies. Students must learn to understand different perspectives, adopt their own moral and pragmatic positions, and respectfully disagree with one another.
In case you missed it, one of Sydney’s rugby league clubs, the Manly Sea Eagles, have launched a rainbow jersey meant to signify inclusion and linked to Pride Month, a celebration of LGBTQI+ identity. The launch happened with little player consultation with seven players refusing to wear the rainbow sweater. The players, all from the Pacific Islands, pulled out of a crucial game for the season, leaving their teammates confused, the fans angry and the team’s management, coach, sponsors and owner confused. apologizing.
What was meant to be a symbol of inclusion became a clash with accusations of homophobia, hypocrisy and divided players, fans, officials and commentators. It was hardly the kind of publicity you wanted around an inclusion cycle.
So many mistakes have been made that it’s hard to know where to start. I want to focus on three key mistakes during debates where claims were made that included everything from “awareness” going too far, the politicization of sport, and deep-seated cultural biases.
The first mistake made when discussing the Manly 7s was to tabulate their positions and individuals. Calling them nothing more than a bunch of hypocritical homophobes willing to be sponsored by gambling organizations in places selling alcohol was a mistake. In other words, players were willing to take a moral stance around the Bible’s position on sexuality while ignoring the harms of alcohol and gambling. Even the Many 7’s description emphasizes fixed boundaries between the splinter gambling group and its adversaries, locked in a dead end struggle.
I do not know these seven men, nor their families, nor their backgrounds. I don’t know their politics or the details of their religion. They have complex lives full of contradictions. These positions, like ours, are often subtle and nuanced – so to assume that they are somehow “phobic” is too quick and reflects a lack of deeper consideration that contributed to the conflict in the first place.
We know that players are all involved in their communities in all kinds of voluntary and charitable work. One player, Josh Aloiai, has been praised for his efforts to end the ‘postcode war’ after a teenager was fatally stabbed during the Easter show earlier this year. The position each has taken against the Pride jersey initiative is best understood by asking about their history, which is dynamic and evolving, rather than their position – which may be “fixed” by conflict before dialogue and respectful disagreement have a chance to take effect.
As members of a complex society, let’s not put anyone in a position where they are for or against the LGBTQI+ community, and learn to manage the nuances. This is especially the case for those who want to advocate for incremental change and bring as many community members as possible on this journey with them.
Religion versus sexuality
The second error was to oppose religion to sexuality. Religions and religious should never be homogenized. This does not mean that homophobia does not exist among religious communities. Christian organizations carry historical baggage and have long appealed to same-sex people, but many of them are changing, albeit slowly.
In a secular country like Australia, many of us increasingly miss the lived experience of religious communities and their cultures. This is not the case for Australians who have heritage from Pacific island states such as Samoa and Tonga, where most of these Manly 7 players hail from. The social impact of the choices these youngsters men do extends far beyond those of us who live in a more individualistic secular world.
Yet even here we can show our ignorance by assuming that these communities are homogeneous when it comes to matters of social change. As Andrew Charles Palmer of Wesley Mission pointed out in an insightful social media post, there are “Pacific Islander Christian leaders across the theological spectrum – some conservative, others progressive on matters of faith and sexuality”. Interpretations of the Torah, Bible, Quran, and other religious texts vary. If we demand only one interpretation, we risk being the kind of fundamentalists we accuse others of being.
When we begin to understand this complexity, we realize that tabulating the “Manly 7” is a mistaken – but potentially more comfortable – way of establishing conflict groups that pit us directly against each other. And a position that never ventures into the possibility of deeper resolution.
The voice of sports stars
One of the most iconic photos of the 20th century is the Black Power Raised Fist of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.
Since then, we’ve seen sports stars regularly make political statements: from taking the knee to accepting Donald Trump’s sponsorship. As a result, sports stars have been both praised and criticized for sharing their political views.
We cannot choose the moral and political positions adopted by athletes. Either we accept that they have as much right, or we stop contradicting ourselves by praising them, or criticizing them for their position when it suits us.
Sports stars become famous for their physical prowess and in doing so, are given a platform. We cannot tell them to shut up when we disagree with them.
In an example such as the “Manly 7” controversy, we might find voices from sports leaders and players who understand different perspectives and can show the way forward. Manly coach Des Hasler’s press conference apology – in response to a dispute that was not of his own initiative – showed sensitivity to all parties involved, be it Manly’s seven players and their communities, or his longtime bandmate Ian Roberts and the broader LGBTQI community is one of them.
Another powerful glimpse was offered by NRLW star Karina Brown, featured in this iconic photo kissing her partner Vanessa Foliaki after the 2018 State of Origin clash. Brown’s comments on the jersey controversy pride are broad and important, including this:
“This jersey is for everyone in the league…whether you love someone of the same sex or you love Jesus Christ, it says there is a place for you in rugby league.”
Brown’s commentary is offered in strong support for the celebration of LGBTQI league players, but also notice his call for a form of inclusion that recognizes difference. In the same way that conservatives are challenged to make room for identity differences in their religious worldview, Pride advocates that we should be encouraged to reimagine the power of the rainbow to include those with whom they disagree on gender and identity.
What is the answer?
Such controversies will continue and our response must be more nuanced. We need to understand why they took this position even though we disagree with them. We should offer the hand of friendship and understanding, not hurl insults that make us feel better.
We may not end up in the same place, but if we take the time to talk to those we disagree with and explain the harm they are causing, conversations can follow. We’ve seen the exceptional work of former openly gay resident Ian Roberts, sharing his injury story. His nuanced comments would have had an incredible impact.
As Australia’s first Pasifika Professor at an Australian university, Jioji Ravulo, wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald:
If we are serious about helping diversity thrive in all shapes and sizes, whether based on ethnicity, religion or sexuality, we must continue to create a shared conversation between NRL clubs that empowers players to share their views and values without fear.
The essence of respectful disagreement is understanding, not agreeing. We have forgotten this art and it is the very essence of why we find ourselves so politically divided. Moments like these should be learning moments that can bring us together to understand even if we never fully agree.Professor James Arvanitakis is an Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society, a Fulbright alumnus, Patron of Diversity Arts Australia and recently founded Respectful Disagreements. He tweets at @jarvanitakis