Now that much of the dust has settled from rugby league’s ‘Manly 7’, it is time to take a deep breath and contemplate how we as a contemporary multicultural, liberal democratic, rights-based community can better deal with such conflicts.

If I was still teaching at university, I would use this as a case study for one of my classes titled ‘contemporary society.’ This provides us with an ideal case study of the type of complex conflict that emerges in multi-layered societies. And we need to educate our future leaders to able to unpack such controversies. Students should learn to understand the different perspectives, come to their own moral and pragmatic positions, and respectfully disagree with each other.

In case you missed it, one of Sydney’s rugby league clubs, the Manly Sea Eagles, launched a rainbow jersey that was meant to signify inclusion and was connected to Pride Month, a celebration of LGBTQI+ identity. The launch happened with little consultation to players with seven players refusing to wear the rainbow jumper. The players all Pacific Islander heritage, stood down from a season defining game leaving their teammates confused, fans angry, and team management, the coach, sponsors, and the owner apologising.

What was meant to be a symbol of inclusion became one of conflict with accusations of homophobia, hypocrisy, and players, fans, officials, and commentators divided. This was hardly the type of publicity you want around an inclusion round.

So many mistakes were made that it is hard to know where to begin. I want to concentrate on three key mistakes during the debates where claims where made that included everything from ‘wokeness’ going too far, politicisation of sport, and deep-seated cultural prejudices.

Totalising positions

The first error made during the discussions about the Manly 7 was to totalise their positions and the individuals. Labelling them as nothing more than a bunch of hypocritic homophobes willing to be sponsored by gambling organisations in venues selling alcohol was wrong. That is, the players were willing to make a moral stance around the Bible’s position on sexuality while ignoring the evils of alcohol and gambling. Even the description of the Many 7 emphasises fixed boundaries between the dissenting playing group and their opponents, locked in a no-win struggle.

I do not know these seven men, their families, or their journeys. I do not know their politics or details about their religion. They have complex lives full of contradictions. These positions, like ours, are often subtle and nuanced – so assuming that they are any sort of ‘phobic’ is too fast and reflects a lack of deeper consideration that contributed to the conflict in the first place.

We do know that the players are all involved with their communities in all sorts of volunteer and charitable work. One player Josh Aloiai was commended for his efforts to end the ‘postcode wars’ after the fatal stabbing of a teenager at the Easter Show earlier this year. The stance that each have taken against the Pride jersey initiative is better understood by asking about their story, which is dynamic and evolving, rather than their stance – which can become ‘fixed’ by the conflict before dialogue and respectful disagreement is given a chance to take effect.

As members of a complex society, let’s not put anyone in a position that they are either for or against the LGBTQI+ community, and learn to deal with nuance. This is especially the case for those wanting to advocate for progressive change and bring as many members as possible of the community on that journey with them.

Manly players (L-R) Sean Keppie, Kieran Foran and Reuben Garrick wearing the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles pride jersey. Photo:AAP

Religion v. Sexuality

The second mistake was to pit religion against sexuality. Religions and religious people should never be homogenised. This is not to say that homophobia does not exist amongst religious communities. Christian organisations carry historical baggage, and have long ‘damned’ same sex attracted people, but many of these are changing, albeit slowly.

In a secular country such as Australia, many of us increasingly lack 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 are from. The social impact the choices these young men make extend way beyond those of us who live in a more individualistic secular world.

Yet, even here we can show our ignorance by assuming that such communities are homogenous when it comes to issues of social change. As Wesley Mission’s Andrew Charles Palmer pointed out in an insightful social media post, there are ‘Pacific Island Christian leaders across the theological spectrum – some conservative, others progressive on matters of faith and sexuality.’ Interpretations of the Torah, Bible, the Quran and other religious texts vary. If we demand only one interpretation, then we risk being the sort of fundamentalists that we accuse others of being.

When we begin to understand this complexity, we realise that totalising the ‘Manly 7’ is a way of mistakenly – but potentially more comfortably – establishing conflict groups that directly pit us against each other. And a position that never ventures toward the possibility of a deeper resolution.

The voice of sports stars

One of the most iconic photos of the twentieth century is the Black Power raised fist of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.

Since then, we have seen sports stars regular make political statements: from taking the knee to accepting sponsorship from Donald Trump. As a result, sports stars have been simultaneously praised and criticised for sharing their political views.

We cannot pick and choose the moral and political positions that sports people take. We either accept that they have as much a right, or stop contradicting ourselves by praising, or criticising them for their position when it suits us.

Sports stars become famous for the physical prowess and in doing so are given a platform. We can’t tell them to shut up when we disagree with them.

In an example such as the controversy of the ‘Manly 7’, we might find voices of sports leaders and players who understand different perspectives and can point the way forward. The press conference apology by Manly coach Des Hasler – in response to a conflict not of his own making – showed sensitivity toward all parties concerned, whether it be the seven Manly players and their communities, or his long-term teammate Ian Roberts and the wider LGBTQI community is a part of.

Another powerful insight was offered by NRLW star Karina Brown, featured in that iconic photo kissing her partner Vanessa Foliaki after the 2018 State of Origin clash. Brown’s comments on the pride jersey controversy are wide-ranging and important, including this:

“This jersey is for everyone in league … whether you love someone of the same sex or whether you love Jesus Christ it says there’s a place for you in rugby league.”

Brown’s comment is offered in strong support of celebrating LGBTQI league players, but also notice her appeal to a form of inclusion that acknowledges difference. In the same way that conservatives are challenged to make space 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’s the answer?

Such controversies will continue, and our response must be more nuanced. We need to understand why they have taken this position even if we disagree with them. We need to offer the hand of friendship and understanding, not hurl insults that make us feel better.

We may not end up on the same place, but if we take time to speak to those we disagree with and explain the hurt they cause, then conversations may follow. We saw the outstanding work of openly gay former stay Ian Roberts, sharing his story of hurt. His nuanced comments would have had incredible impact.

As Australia’s first Pasifika Professor at an Australian university, Jioji Ravulo, wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald:

If we are truly going to support diversity to thrive in all shapes and sizes, whether based on ethnicity, religion, or sexuality, we need to continue to create a shared conversation across NRL clubs that allows 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 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 the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, a Fulbright alumnus, the Patron of Diversity Arts Australia, and has recently founded Respectful Disagreements. He tweets at @jarvanitakis