Manly coach Des Hasler has apologised on behalf of the club for the “poor” execution in unveiling a pride jersey as part of an inclusivity initiative which has resulted in a boycott by seven players.
The day after news broke that almost half the Sea Eagles team said they would not play in Thursday night’s clash against the Roosters, Hasler fronted the media and confirmed religious and cultural differences were behind the stance.
In a contrite press conference alongside club captain Daly Cherry-Evans, he said none of the coaching staff nor the players had been made aware of the jersey before it was launched and lamented that, while the one-off rainbow design was intended to “represent diversity and inclusion for all”, the decision was made with “little consultation or collaboration with key stakeholders”.
“They [the players] are not wearing the jersey as it conflicts with their cultural and religious beliefs, and I am concerned for their welfare,” Hasler said. “Their spirituality is a central part of their wellbeing. The club has made an error from which it will learn. The players will not play on Thursday and we accept their decision.
“These young men are strong in their beliefs and convictions. We’ll give them space and the support they require. The playing group are solid and understanding of each other’s views.”
Despite this, Hasler confirmed the team would press ahead and wear the ‘Everyone in League’ jersey, which reportedly sold out in men’s and women’s sizes by Monday night, with Cherry-Evans stating he would “proudly wearing the jersey to try to endorse inclusiveness and diversity”.
The divisive issue has overshadowed the NRL’s Women in League round, which was launched in Sydney on Tuesday morning. During the breakfast, ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys made clear his views by declaring “we don’t live in Russia” and saying he was open to launching a game-wide Pride round as soon as 2023.
Hasler, for his part, read from a lengthy statement in which he apologised to all stakeholders of the game, including the LGBTQ community, the ARLC, the NRL and its 15 other clubs, and the Sea Eagles’ own playing group and staff.
“The intent of the rainbow colour application of our jersey was to represent diversity and inclusion for all, utilising the symbolic colours of pride to embrace all groups who feel marginalised and faced discrimination and have a suppressed share of voice,” he said.
“The jersey intent was to support the advocacy and human rights pertaining to gender, race culture, ability and LGBTQ rights. Sadly, the execution of what was intended to be an extremely important initiative was poor.
“There was little consultation or collaboration with key stakeholder, both inside and outside the club. Sadly, this poor management … has caused significant confusion, discomfort and pain for many people. In particular, those groups whose human rights we were, in fact, attempting to support.
“We have even adversely affected our player group, a wonderful group of people comprising of many different racial and cultural backgrounds. We wish to sincerely apologise for the mistakes we have made.”
Hasler said he and Cherry-Evans had volunteered to front the press themselves but, asked why he was apologising instead of the club’s administration, he said: “You will have to talk to management about that.”
Cherry-Evans was also pressed on whether he had ever heard “bigoted views” from within the playing group regarding the LGBTQI community. “Stuff like this isn’t a topic of conversation unless put in the situation,” he responded. “So we are experiencing a lot of things for the first time as a playing group.”
On Tuesday morning, V’landys insisted the game was an inclusive sport, but said he also respected the Manly players’ stance.
“In my view we’re all human beings,” V’landys said. “It doesn’t matter what colour we are, what race we are, what religion we are. We may have our differences and we may have different beliefs but at the end of the day we are all human beings and we should respect that.
“However, I do respect the Manly players’ right [to] freedom. They’ve got every right to withdraw their services if they wish to do so.”
V’landys was himself unaware of the initiative until Monday and he said Manly could have handled the situation better. “They could have been a lot more collaborative with the players,” he told reporters. “They shouldn’t have sprung it on the players.”
Ian Roberts, the former Manly player who in 1995 as a Sea Eagle became the first NRL player to publicly come out as gay, said he was “heartbroken” at the situation but later welcomed the club’s apology.
“I thought the acknowledgement and the sincerity and authenticity was wonderful,” Roberts told the ABC. “I thought it was exceptional in explaining that the original Pride round was brought together with the right intention – a celebration for the community.
“I also would really like to acknowledge that he [Hasler] did the right thing in saying that they got a few things wrong – the ownership of that and how they would do things differently good given the opportunity again. I think that was very brave and forthright.
“But where do we go to from here? It is not the way we wanted this conversation to start but we are having the conversation now. I fully respect those players choosing not to play and their right not to play, their religious beliefs. I would love, given the opportunity to sit around a table with those guys in the summer and have a conversation with them.”
Prime minister Anthony Albanese, who said he counted Roberts as a friend, hoped the situation would be resolved. “It’s a good thing sport is more inclusive,” he said. “[Roberts] showed incredible courage. He wasn’t the first gay man to play rugby league – I’ll give the tip – he was the first to have courage to come out and pave the way for others to do so. It’s important that in Australian society we respect everyone for who they are.”