Amid the Ghandi quotes and the careful language, Manly coach Des Hasler said “the NRL is for everyone”.
Hasler was walking a fine line at high noon on Tuesday. He did what he could to prove his club stands by its values of diversity, while trying to avoid alienating the seven players who will not take the field in the Sea Eagles’ inclusivity jersey.
But the key phrase, the whole point of the jersey in the first place, is there in those five words. The NRL is for everyone.
“Our intent was to be caring and passionate towards all diverse groups who face inclusion issues daily. But, however, instead of enhancing tolerance and acceptance we may have hindered this,” Hasler said.
“I truly hope that the communities, the NRL, our staff and our players and staff for who we have caused confusion and pain can accept our apology.
“Personally I share the views that are inclusiveness across the game and society. It is an important matter and the NRL is for everyone.”
The club has committed to wearing the strip. Just wearing it was an important move in the right direction for the club and the game, and now it has become even more powerful.
But this week we’ve seen the difficulty changes to the status quo can bring.
Of the seven players who have stood down for Thursday night’s game, six of them are of Pasifika background, as is close to half the league. In many of those communities, religion is more than just a faith or an hour they spend at mass on a Sunday, it’s a binding force for culture and family to rally around in good times and bad, and it reaches back into their past to the point they cannot imagine their lives without it, and nor would they want to.
Of course, it would be wrong to stereotype all Pasifika players at all clubs as being from conservative religious backgrounds, because there are plenty who would not share those beliefs or who would not be religious at all. But there are undoubtedly some who will agree with the boycotters.
Likewise, there will be other players who object to supporting LGBTQI+ inclusivity on other cultural or political grounds, and that will come to the forefront when steps like this are being taken. That is a certainty.
What’s just as certain is that many more players will support these initiatives, as Manly skipper Daly Cherry-Evans pointed out.
“I’m really trying to encourage people to have an open mind on what has happened. As society we have a long way to go on topics like this,” Cherry-Evans said.
“But there are going to be people out there wearing the jersey. I will be out there proudly wearing the jersey and trying to endorse inclusiveness and diversity.
“Eventually once we get over the fact people have made the decision not to play, there are going to be people who made the decision to wear the jersey.”
Inclusion is a process, and not something that will go away with a few tokenistic gestures and ticking a couple of boxes.
In some areas, rugby league has a strong record of cultural diversity and inclusion, dating back to the founding of the game in 1895.
In the 1970s it was the first Australian sport to have an Indigenous person captain the national side, 20 years later Ian Roberts was one of the first male athletes in the world to come out during his career, and the game’s embrace of cultural diversity in recent years, especially in regards to its Pasifika players and fans, has been first rate.
Those achievements were not achieved without resistance. That is what made them worthwhile in the first place.
The same is true now. If rugby league is the sport for everyone, then it must prove it.
It must show those people who feel excluded in other facets of society that this game is for them, that they are welcome and celebrated and included like everybody else — whatever their sexuality or religion.
When progress is made in any sphere, quite often a price must be paid. For now, the Sea Eagles may well pay with their season.
They’re on the edge of the top eight, the Roosters are in the same boat and Thursday’s game would have been one of their most important of the year regardless of what happened in the lead-up.
A loss could send them into a tailspin from which they never recover, and losing the seven players who don’t wish to wear the jersey is, from a purely footballing perspective, a hammer blow.
This is the first time an NRL club has worn a pride strip, but what is the next step on this path? Will they do it again? Will any other club follow their lead?
If NRL clubs are asked to make a choice between giving themselves the best chance at winning and being sporting leaders on complex social issues, it’s easy to know which path many would chose.
But it does not need to be a binary choice. Rugby league, like sport in general, is about more than just winning and losing. It’s about community and purpose and feeling like you’re a part of something.
You might be doing it tough somewhere else in life, but your team is always there. Your sport is always there. For many, sport isn’t just a thing they do or a game they watch, it’s who they are and that’s a feeling that has saved lives.
And everybody should be able to feel that. Everybody should be able to be a part of what makes sport important and what makes rugby league important. Everybody should have a place in this game, or in any game.
But fully opening those doors doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t come easily. Almost nothing worthwhile does.