Rugby league is one of Australia’s great spectator sports, and for spectators the game offers respite from politics. Yet as the controversy surrounding Manly’s rainbow-coloured “pride” jersey shows, professional sports have been transformed into platforms that promote what is termed identity politics, which seeks to divide society by race, gender and religion.
Let’s be clear. The gay and lesbian community has succeeded in changing public opinion across the Western world by championing love and acceptance: witness the resounding victory of same-sex marriage in the plebiscite held five years ago.
And yet many activists remain intolerant of anyone who dissents from the new orthodoxy, especially those ethnic minorities who hold on to more traditional religious or cultural views.
This is why the fracas at the Sea Eagles over the pride jersey was completely foreseeable. Most modern sporting clubs draw their formidable talent from people from various cultural backgrounds, and this is especially so in rugby league, which has many Indigenous, Maori and Pacific Island players.
When a club pushes a compulsory agenda of “inclusiveness” and “diversity”, it runs the risk of a head-on clash with the cultural and religious norms of players on whom the club depends for its success. Manly’s imposition of a commitment to diversity – by obliging all players to wear a rainbow jersey – has only created more division and threatened the sporting prowess of the club.
A genuine commitment to “diversity” means committing to acceptance of diverse views. Compelling “tolerance” and “diversity” is simply intolerant and divisive. The irony is that Australia is more tolerant and diverse than ever.
If those who feel particularly strongly about LGBT rights want to wear the “pride” jersey, they should do so. But if others object, they should not in a genuinely free society be made to do so. And yet the NRL dictum – an entire team must wear the same jersey – precludes that choice.
Healthy democracies have ample room for politics but leave a larger space for civil society that unites more than divides. With the intrusion of identity politics into sports, many Western nations, including Australia, are exhibiting a very unhealthy level of polarisation. The result is that identity politics, far from uniting people, divides society.
The losers are not just the Manly Sea Eagles – who struggled to field a team for Thursday night’s game against arch-rivals Sydney Roosters – but the many Australians who would rather cheer for their teams at the game as a respite from the bitterness and rancour of daily politics.