Seven players from an Australian National Rugby League (NRL) team will boycott a key championship match this week over their team's decision to wear a gay pride jersey, prompting criticism from the club's first openly gay player.
The Manly Sea Eagles's one-off jersey has rainbow stripes and a rainbow collar - in place of the regular white sections - to support LGBTQ inclusion in sports, and the club planned to use it for one game against Sydney Roosters.
Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolu Koula and Toafofoa Sipley are the players standing down for Thursday's match, which could prove pivotal to the club's chances of making the NRL finals.
Players weren't consulted over the new kit and some object to the move on religious and cultural grounds, according to the team's coach Des Hasler.
Under league rules, players from the same team cannot wear different jerseys.
"We accept their decision," the championship coach told reporters on Tuesday, as he apologised to the LGBTQ community as well as to the players involved. "These young men are strong in their beliefs and their convictions and we will give them the space and the support they require."
“Our intent was to be caring towards all diverse groups who face inclusion issues daily,” Mr Hasler added.
“Sadly this poor management has caused significant confusion, discomfort and pain for many people, in particular those groups whose human rights we in fact attempting to support. “We wish to apologise to the LGBTQ community who embrace the rainbow colours, who use these colours for pride and advocacy and human rights issues.”
Ian Roberts, the former Manly player who in the 1990s was the first high-profile rugby league player to come out as gay, said he was not surprised by the players’ decision, but added it made him "sad and uncomfortable" nonetheless. "I can promise you every young kid on the northern beaches (of Sydney) who is dealing with their sexuality would have heard about this," he told Sydney's Daily Telegraph.
He says homophobia remains a big issue among fans and players in the country's top competitions.
LGBTQ advocates condemned the boycott as the players were widely branded as homophobic on social media.
The Sea Eagles - which has to have 13 players to play in each match - are in ninth place in the NRL, one spot below the Roosters. The top eight teams qualify for the playoffs.
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Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys said he understood the players’ choices, based on religious and cultural differences, but pushed for inclusion and acceptance in the sport. “One thing I take pride in with rugby league is we treat everyone the same,” Mr V’landys said. “It doesn’t matter your colour, sexual orientation or race. We’re all equal. “We’ll never take a backward step in having our sport inclusive. But at the same time we will not disrespect our players’ freedoms.”
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also intervened amid the row, saying he hoped Manly Sea Eagles could resolve the jersey standoff. "It's a good thing that sport is more inclusive," he said on Tuesday. "It's important that in Australian society, we respect everyone for who they are."
The Sea Eagles - which, like other teams, need 13 players on the field each game - are in ninth place in the NRL, one spot below the Roosters. The top eight teams qualify for the playoffs.