How one rugby team's attempt to promote LGBTQ equality sparked a global controversy about players' rights

Manly coach Des Hasler and captain Daly Cherry-Evans apologized to the LGBTQ community while speaking to the media Tuesday


                            How one rugby team's attempt to promote LGBTQ equality sparked a global controversy about players' rights
Seven players of the Manly Sea Eagles have staged a boycott over an LGBTQ-themed jersey (Manly Sea Eagles)
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The pride jersey boycott by seven Manly players has sparked a full-blown controversy in the NRL world as more players from the team rejected the opportunity to play this weekend.

Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau'atu, Tolutau Koula, Christian Tuipulotu, and Toafofoa Sipley were the original pride jersey boycotters, who announced they will not be playing Manly's crucial match against the Roosters on Thursday, July 28. Th club scrambled to replace the players ahead of the team submission deadline to the NRL at 4 pm on Tuesday, July 26. However, a group of lower-graders who were asked to fill in has also rejected the chance to play wearing the rainbow jumper

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As reported by the Daily Telegraph, the players -- who have not been identified at the time of publication -- took the decision for similar reasons as the original seven, citing various cultural or religious grounds. This came after coach Des Hasler and captain Daly Cherry-Evans addressed the controversy while speaking to the media on Tuesday afternoon. "We wish to apologize to the LGBTQ community who embrace the rainbow colors and use these colors for pride and advocacy and human rights issues," Hasler said. "Our intent was to be caring and compassionate towards all diverse groups who face inclusion issues daily. However, instead of enhancing tolerance, and acceptance, we may have hindered this."

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However, the coach defended the seven players who chose not to play the match, while admitting the club could have handled the situation better. "Sadly, the execution of what was intended to be an extremely important initiative was poor. There was little consultation or collaboration between key stakeholders, both inside and outside the club," he explained to reporters. "No one is forced to do anything in this game. The decision is clear, some people feel strongly about certain things and that is fine. It is a good initiative and it puts 17 people out there who will do many people proud and make those feeling vulnerable a bit more welcome in society," Hasler added. Only one player has been confirmed as one of the seven replacements, hooker James Segeyaro, who will play his first NRL game since 2019 after serving a 20-month ban for returning a positive drug sample for ligandrol. 

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Manly legend Ian Roberts, who became the first rugby player to come out as gay in 1995, also chimed in on the jersey fiasco. He said the personal beliefs of both Christian players as well as members of the LGBTQ community needed to be respected. "There was definitely a breakdown of communication. I don't know what the players' reaction would have been if they had known a month ago, if their decisions would have been different," Roberts said during an appearance on The Project. "But at least they would have had the opportunity to speak up sooner and voice their opinion. We can't vilify any of these players. Their right to refuse to play, you know, should be respected as well."

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Ian Roberts of the Manly Sea Eagles in action during a ARL match held in Sydney, Australia.
Ian Roberts of the Manly Sea Eagles in action during an ARL match held in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Getty Images)

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Roberts, however, said he felt deeply for youths struggling with their sexual identity and who may be affected by the controversy. "It's such a personal thing when someone comes out. That person - they need to feel they are in a safe environment. They need to feel welcomed," he said.

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"For any person coming out, that's the biggest obstacle. I think what's happened particularly now that those players are not playing, it does, you know, unfortunately, does send a bit of a message." He added, "I feel for all those kids in the suburbs who are dealing with sexuality issues or sexual identity. All of those kids would be feeling a little bit less today." 

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