Manly players of Pasifika heritage should boycott the NRL and should encourage other players to do so.
Several Manly players recently announced their refusal to wear a pride jersey promoting LGBTQIA+ rights because it conflicts with their strict religious beliefs. The incident has sparked massive controversy and is set to distract from the Women in League round which is designed to praise and promote the women who make a massive contribution to rugby league.
Critics have blasted their homophobic stance and their decision to potentially destroy the team’s finals hopes, while others have defended their right to express their personal religious beliefs and to stay true to those convictions. The incident even drew a response from the only openly gay NRL player, former Manly forward Ian Roberts.
Manly players should boycott the NRL, but not because of a rainbow jersey. They should boycott the NRL, and encourage other rugby players to do so, to protest Australia’s inaction on tackling climate change.
Australia has the highest per-capita rate of carbon emissions in the world. Countries such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, from which so many NRL and Super Rugby players descend, face an existential threat from rising sea levels. Rising sea levels are the result of the climate crisis and the climate crisis is being driven by traditional agricultural practices and fossil fuels.
Australia relies heavily on cattle and diary farming, and on fossil fuels. It also relies heavily upon Pasifika rugby players at the top level. For this reason, Pasifika players are in a unique position to advocate for action to tackle climate change.
At the time of writing, 16 of the 34 players in the Wallabies squad were of Pasifika heritage, and about 50% of NRL players share the same ancestry. That’s just the men’s game. Pasifika players are powerful ball runners, powerful tacklers and powerful advocates for action on climate change – they just don’t realise the latter.
If every player of Pasifika heritage boycotted one round of the NRL, or the Super Rugby Australia competition, it would throw those competitions into complete disarray. Not only would clubs struggle to field a team, but they would struggle to field a competitive team considering the talent and influence of Pasifika players. Put simply, you can’t win a game of NRL or Super Rugby these days without Pasifika players. Even European nations are ‘acquiring’ this talent for their national teams.
Pasifika players should unite and boycott one round of the respective competition, or even an entire season considering the urgency of climate action. They should widely publicise the reason for their stance and make clear demands for improved action to tackle climate change. They should demand no new fossil fuel projects, and improved farming methods which would reduce the carbon emissions, as well as reductions to land clearing, and other measures. This could be done in conjunction with similar formal requests from the leaders of Pacific Island nations – requests which have already been made, and ignored, by successive Australian governments.
If Australia takes meaningful action to tackle climate change, the players would return to their respective teams.
The technology, resources, expertise and willingness exist to transition away from fossil fuels and traditional agricultural practices. All that is needed is a change in the behaviour of governments and corporations.
Pasifika players are in a position to advocate for this change because of their importance to the two codes. Every club fields a large number of Pasifika players; Queensland and NSW also rely on their talent during State of Origin; and the Wallabies are increasingly ‘multicultural’. Such is the depth of talent that the last time the Kangaroos played in 2019, they lost to Tonga.
In the case of Super Rugby Pacific, two teams are made up entirely of Pasifika players: Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua. They were introduced to the competition in 2022 in recognition of the prevalence of Fijian, Samoan and Tongan players at the elite level. Removing two entire teams from a round of Super Rugby would have an even greater impact on the competition, and send a very clear message.
Pasifika rugby league and rugby union players are also in a unique position to reach two specific audiences. NRL fans are traditionally working class people who are likely to work in the fossil fuel or farming industries, and are more likely to consume the Murdoch media which is denying climate crisis and stifling action to address it. Super Rugby fans, meanwhile, traditionally emerge from the private school system and are likely to join the political parties which sustain agriculture and mining (with massive subsidies from Aussie taxpayers) or to own or manage the corporations at the top of those industries. NRL and Super Rugby players are in a unique position to communicate with NRL and Super Rugby fans to change their attitudes towards tackling climate change.
Perhaps a substandard round of rugby, or a severely depleted Wallabies team, will jolt Australians out of their climate apathy.
Individual players do assume a great risk. Like any ‘strike’ or protest action, the participants stand to lose. Players could lose match payments, their contracts or their place in the first-grade team if they sit out for one game or more. Each player would have to assess the risk to their career and their income, and weight that up against the risk to their ancestral lands.
Players would also face significant criticism. They would face criticism from their teammates, coaches and clubs, as well as fans and the media. The Murdoch media would no doubt manipulate the action for their own benefit and the players would be the ones to suffer reputational damage. That said, the situation facing is so desperate and the consequences so serious that Pasifika NRL and Super Rugby players should consider boycotting their respective competitions to force Australia to tackle climate change.