Manly players Sean Keppie, Kieran Foran and Reuben Garrick happily wearing the pride jersey (Image: AAP/Supplied by Manly Warringah Sea Eagles)
Manly players Sean Keppie, Kieran Foran and Reuben Garrick happily wearing the pride jersey (Image: AAP/Supplied by Manly Warringah Sea Eagles)

Pride is an interesting word. Relevantly, it means “consciousness of one’s own dignity”, although that tends to be conflated with its other meaning, a feeling of satisfaction with one’s own achievements. 

“Pride” as a shorthand for LGBTIQA+ identity derives from the earlier notion of being “out and proud”, a positive declaration of equal human dignity. A tinge of the other pride runs there too, because coming out was and remains an act requiring courage.

It is, therefore, the perfect word for what it describes. But it is also a loaded word.

Prides collide this week at the Manly Warringah Rugby League Club in Sydney, as seven members of the club’s first grade team have declared that they won’t be taking the field for Thursday night’s game against the Roosters — if they are required to wear a “pride” jersey.

Manly has had a special jumper designed for one wearing, featuring a rainbow motif, calling it an “inclusivity jersey”. Presumably the club didn’t think there’d be any issue, so it hadn’t consulted or warned the players before unveiling the design.

The refuseniks’ objection is reportedly on cultural or religious grounds. The issue is, of course, that their personal religious beliefs don’t include acceptance of homosexuality, and presumably they don’t feel they can comfortably wear a jumper that communicates such acceptance as a social norm.

Some would call that conviction, others pride. What one wears is an expression of identity, of course, and pride includes both what one is and what one is not. The seven players are, I imagine, proud of their principled stance.

That just takes us back into the morass of religious freedom v sexual/gender identity equality, the pointless argument that gave us the marriage equality plebiscite and Katherine Deves. The players are absolutely right if you share their beliefs, or absolutely wrong if you don’t.

What’s the legal position? The Morrison government failed to pass any religious freedom law, and the NSW government has not yet carried through its announced plan to add religious discrimination to its anti-discrimination legislation. As the law stands, therefore, the Manly players have no claim that they are the victims of discrimination by being required to wear a jumper that offends their religious beliefs.

It may be that if the players refuse to play they will be in breach of their employment contracts; that depends entirely on the terms of those contracts. It sounds like a non-issue, because Manly reportedly is allowing them to voluntarily stand down without penalty. If it did move against them, the players might seek to invoke protections under the federal Fair Work Act against religious discrimination by employers.

The AFL has had a pride round for years. The NRL has been a leader on racial/ethnic inclusivity, but traditionally lags in other aspects of social progress. It has a particular complexity when it comes to LGBTIQA+ identity: the extremely high proportion of Pasifika-background players in the NRL, very many of whom are attached to conservative Christian faiths.

That’s just a practical consideration, not an ethical one. The NRL says it is inclusive as a principle; LGBTIQA+ people exist and are entitled to be and feel welcomed. The code and its clubs will have to face up to the issue and navigate their way through it. Blindsiding their players is not a good start.

The media are busily blowing up the Manly story because who doesn’t love a culture war, but we’d be wiser to take a long view on this. We know where the arc of progress goes. Let the players sit the game out; they can wear their prejudice with pride. Ultimately, what no doubt feels to them to be a stand, will prove to have been merely a footnote.