NRL

The furore surrounding seven Manly NRL players’ refusal to wear the club’s rainbow pride jersey provides easy fodder for columnists but fails to interrogate what true inclusivity means. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Manly pride jersey debate goes beyond the binary

Spectators at the NRL match between Manly and the Sydney Roosters on July 28.
Spectators at the NRL match between Manly and the Sydney Roosters on July 28.
Credit: AAP Image / Dan Himbrichts

Blindsiding a team filled with Christian men, in order to uphold what’s become a thoroughly corporatised gesture, and then watching their quiet refusal become subject to a flowering of public contempt, is an extremely odd way to run an “inclusion round”.

But so it was when the NRL’s Manly Warringah Sea Eagles last week unveiled a special rainbow pride jersey without having consulted the team. Seven players – six of them of Pasifika heritage, the seventh of Indigenous and Nigerian descent – quietly declined to wear them on religious grounds and sat the match out, while an admirably sincere and eloquent coach, Des Hasler, faced the public. “Our intent was to be caring and passionate towards all diverse groups who face inclusion issues daily,” Hasler said. “Sadly [the club’s mishandling of it] has caused significant confusion, discomfort and pain for many people. In particular those groups whose human rights we were in fact attempting to support.”

There was also a degree of righteous simplicity in the commentary, which is really the theme of this column. Peter FitzSimons does not have a monopoly on this but he’s an excellent example of it. Of the seven Manly players, FitzSimons wrote: “Here is the next question, to the players themselves. What the hell is wrong with you blokes that you don’t get it? You are prepared to trash the entire Manly season on this issue alone?”

His question is better asked of himself. But I have one for him: Does he truly think that people’s minds might be changed through blithe derision, or that religion itself might evaporate from the sheer heat of his indignancy?

Now, there is the seeming hypocrisy of the players – and their private hierarchy of sin – that seems fair to note here. These players had long worn jerseys and entered stadiums emblazoned with gambling advertising but it was the Pride rainbow that finally triggered their religious objection.

Okay. Fine. But it’s not for me, or you, or FitzSimons, or the NRL to determine for a religious player what their hierarchy might be, or at what points they may or may not exercise their conscience.

What’s more, progressives have their own contradictory hierarchies – revealed by their selective muteness when diversity actually expresses itself.

Earlier this year, the AFLW player Haneen Zreika, a practising Muslim who plays for Greater Western Sydney, chose to sit out the Pride round on religious grounds. To say the least, it did not make front-page news. With a brisk and supercilious wave of his hand, FitzSimons dismissed the comparison:

“Her declining to do so, as a sole operator, as a young woman living at home with devout parents and playing AFLW as an aside to her studies really is regrettable but 1/100 on the scale of impact and newsworthiness.

“These blokes, seasoned professionals earning millions between them, and destroying the Manly season because of it, is a tad more impactful and newsworthy, yes?”

This is disingenuous and shallow. There’s also an implicit condescension to the women’s game here, too: that it shouldn’t have been an issue, because female footballers lack the social influence of the men. Ultimately, his references to newsworthiness, salary or the fact that she lives with her parents are bizarre non sequiturs. The essence is precisely the same: a devout player refused to wear their club’s pride jersey.

Yet the public and media response was very different. So different, in fact, that I’m sure most of you reading this didn’t even know about it. So, why?

“People of faith have rights as well,” Tanya Hosch, the AFL’s general manager of inclusion and social policy, said at the time. “We say we’re a game for everyone and here we’ve got a situation where we’ve got someone who feels they’ve got to make a decision on whether or not they’ll play based on a uniform that they don’t feel they should be representing in. We want the game to be inclusive, [and] you don’t get to just pick and choose who represents inclusion.”

 

Using Peter FitzSimons as our exemplar of righteous simplicity, let’s now consider FINA’s recent decision to effectively deny competition to male-to-female transgender athletes whose transitions came after one of the early stages of puberty or the age of 12 (whichever came latest).

In FitzSimons-land, everything is simple and to think otherwise is to risk being considered a bigot or of suffering inferior intelligence.

I can understand the defensiveness on this issue. For a community that’s exquisitely vulnerable – the suicide rates of trans people should be sufficient evidence – there’s a disturbing tendency to exploit trans issues. The recent federal election is one example. The then prime minister, Scott Morrison, kept stoking the fires, even though ours was a country reckoning with Covid-19, climate change, entrenched cronyism, historic inflation, severe housing unaffordability, Chinese aggression, a languished compact with Indigenous Australians and an ever-collapsing public faith in our own democracy.

A confident and morally serious prime minister would not have done this. He did so not because it was of national importance, but because he thought it might confer political benefit.

Earlier this year, American trans swimmer Lia Thomas told ESPN: “The biggest misconception, I think, is the reason I transitioned. People will say, ‘Oh, she just transitioned so she would have an advantage, so she could win.’ I transitioned to be happy, to be true to myself.”

It shouldn’t need to be said, although unfortunately it does, that no one submits to gender transition because they wish to find temporary athletic dominance. To think that a person might undertake socially ostracising, publicly scrutinised and intensely invasive treatments and/or surgery only to better compete for a while in a sport is eerily cynical and ignorant.

But the fact of desiring a physical advantage is separate to actually having one. This was FINA’s question. In her final collegiate season with the men’s swimming team, in 2018-19, Lia Thomas was ranked 554th in the country for the 200 yards freestyle, and 65th in the 500 yards freestyle. Two years later, she was respectively ranked fifth and first. Now she was declaring her Olympic ambitions.

This is a sport that has, for decades, spent enormous money and expertise on subtly refining swimming suits to slash fractions of seconds from their athletes’ time. So what effect do you think having larger hands has on your lap time?

Now, this does not make Thomas a villain. Of course, it doesn’t. But it is a hard and unassailable fact, and if you ignore it or wish it away with blithe rhetoric, then you’re not being intellectually serious – a part of which is to acknowledge legitimately contesting views, and to admit your impotence in reconciling them. It’s not pretending that the complexities aren’t there and preferring instead to exalt in your own presumed goodness – an indulgence permissible only by simplicity and gross immodesty.

The question that follows this is: Why should we care if it means being exclusionary? It’s a good question but you must also acknowledge that there’s another question regarding fairness and the integrity of women’s sport. The segregation of sport, FINA says, is to help redress the inequality of opportunity, acknowledgment and pay of female sport.

FitzSimons might have no appetite for holding duelling ideas in his head, but the champion Australian swimmer Cate Campbell did. In her speech to FINA’s congress in June, she said: “Usually, inclusion and fairness go hand in hand. To create a place that is inclusive is to create a space that is fair. Transgender, gender-diverse and non-binary athletes’ inclusion in the female category of elite sport is one of the few occasions where these two principles come into conflict. The incongruity that inclusion and fairness cannot always work together is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk about this topic.”

What did FitzSimons have to say about this? First, there was the school-boy’s version of reductio ad absurdum: “But, yes, there is relevance in the case of Lia Thomas who last year became the first transgender NCAA champion in the 500 yard freestyle, which brought on … the APOCALYPSE! Not actually.”

Then he said because there were precious few competitive trans athletes, no one had to worry. Again, none of this is intellectually serious. It’s both a dismissive shrug and a loving pat of his own head. But FINA can’t afford to adopt FitzSimons’ fashionable nonchalance. They had to discard years of unhelpful prevarication, and think about this – seriously and consultatively – to determine a policy. Or keep kicking the can down the road which, presumably, would have been fine with FitzSimons.

FitzSimons is just an exemplar. And I’ve been guilty, too. Past columns of mine have no doubt forsaken complexity for the thrill of righteous simplicity. It’s a terrible seduction and one that’s harder to avoid given the dramatic splintering of our media.

Among the media’s archipelagos, advertising is limited and audiences are cultivated – though “pandered to” might be the better term. Given that public life is filled with craven grifters, and our institutions can fail us, fury and denunciation have their place.

But I suspect our collective appetite – and attention spans – now demand little else. We’re getting lazy. We seek quick moral gratification, and we know from which aisle to get it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "Pride before a fall".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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