I have been a die hard supporter of the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles for longer than I have been just about anything in my life. I’ve been through some glorious moments (the mid 90s), some dark days (the Northern Beagles), and loved to love the team that others love to hate. The Sea Eagles played a do or die semi-final on my wedding night; and you’d better believe that our honeymoon location had a television (they did lose a crushing grand final a week later only to vanquish the hated Melbourne Storm the following year). My passion — my pride — for that particular maroon and white jersey runs deep (much deeper than my passion for either blue, or green and gold). My mood rises and falls with the fate of my team every weekend.
My passion for my team has been tempered in recent years; not because success on the field has been a little slower than in previous decades — but because my Spiritual home ground, Brookvale Oval, was sacrilegiously renamed “Lottoland,” and those beautiful priestly garments blazoned with the word “Pointsbet” in a shocking testament to gambling greed (which is idolatry). I detest the way the gambling industry has infiltrated the game I love.
I was less than impressed, also, with our roster management and a series of decisions where it was clear we Sea Eagles believed in the power of redemption so much that we were prepared not to enforce the ‘no d***heads’ policy that other teams have embrace to ensure a positive culture; instead choosing to sign, and keep signed, various players with domestic violence convictions.
Where, I wonder, is the line at which I would withdraw my love and my loyalty; my devotion? Where would I respect a player choosing not to don the jersey in principled protest (or worse, where would I respect a decision by someone to flee the Eagles nest and trod the now well-worn path to the Parramatta Eels (honestly, Choc Watmough)).
It turns out the line for up to seven of our players is the decision by the club to be the first team to introduce a Pride Jersey.
Oh how I wish we Christians were consistent.
How I wish it’d been the promotion of unfettered greed — that adorns the jersey on a weekly basis, or the renaming of the stadium — that had pricked the conscience of these players. Pointsbet. No thanks.
But also how I wish we would grapple with just how complex inclusion actually is; and the extent to which genuine inclusion requires people to be able to take the field in brotherhood or mateship as an expression of unity across various things that might otherwise tear us apart; and yet I fear this will not go well. And the story will be told as archaic Christian types having an issue with the LGBTIQA+ community, rather than questions being asked about just how far a modern sporting industry will go in a world of ‘woke capitalism’ to earn a dollar by taking a stand.
My two favourite players in the mid 90s were Steve ‘Beaver’ Menzies, and the tough as nails Ian Roberts. Roberts was the first (and to date only) publicly gay NRL footballer. Manly has modelled inclusion in ways that matter, but this token gesture now runs the risk of exclusion of others. I would love more Christians to ask questions about what it would look like to be so loving to our LGBTIQA+ neighbours or teammates that token gestures are unnecessary. I would love us to take a principled stand against areas the Bible calls sin — like the love of money, or those who take money from the poor to feed the rich — I would love us to not give a free pass to perpetrators of family violence. I would love there to be a line on those ethical issues; but we have so capitulated to capitalism that we look identical to those standing with us in any given scrum.
It’s now over a year since the Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia sent out an email to members of church communities around the country referring to my decision to celebrate someone in my congregation publicly coming out as gay (and Christian, and committed to a traditional sexual ethic). The email started with the statement that “heresies do not appear as mushrooms overnight,” and spoke about “cakes… flaunting self-dramatisation… rainbows,” it was pretty pointed.
That friend marked their coming out with a rainbow cake. And, despite this objection from “the Moderator’s Desk”, I believe this sort of gesture towards inclusivity can be important, and doesn’t necessarily mean a Christian has to violate their personal integrity or commitment to an alternative vision of sex, sexuality, and identity. Inclusivity might require taking the sporting field, or working in an office, or being in a family, or even a church community, with people you disagree with so you might, together, pursue a goal — whether that’s the truth about God, and humanity, or sporting success. It would be a shame if an expression of that sort of desire was enough for Christians to ‘take a knee’ or not enter the field.
And yet, it would be a shame if a push for one sort of inclusivity excluded others. This is now well-trodden territory; it’s the Israel Folau saga making its way into the ethnically and religiously diverse minefield that is modern professional sports. It’ll be a test for the game’s decision makers at a club and competition level and will no doubt see angst voiced, and think pieces churned out. I offer my thoughts here tentatively, having nailed my colours to the mast — I am proudly a Manly man; if I could bleed maroon and white I would.
A few weeks ago the National Rugby League competition paused for Representative Round. In that round we didn’t just enjoy a standalone Sunday State of Origin match, we enjoyed games between Tonga and New Zealand, Samoa and the Cook Islands, and Papua New Guinea and Fiji. It was a bit of a triumph for the development of the game in these Pacific Island nations; as I suggested as the Folau situation was really gathering speed, there was a clash of cultures going on in that event where players from these Island nations are operating with different religious convictions to us Aussies, and unless we grapple with those convictions we’re not actually asking real questions about inclusivity. At the time I wrote about how we couldn’t both celebrate the incredible hymn the Fijian national team sang at the Rugby League World Cup while asking those players to leave their religious convictions behind at other times. For the record, after the Fiji v PNG game in the representative round, both teams joined in a haunting on field hymn and prayer session.
We have overcome; they sang.
As a Christian, and a proud Manly man, I hope my fellow Christians might overcome their thoughts of not taking the field this week and seek a sort of inclusivity that points their teammates to the hope that we have in Jesus; who took the field with sinners in order to transform us all — or that they might continue drawing the line, and not take the field next weekend as well so we might finally send Pointsbet the way of Lottoland.