TRUE OPINION: In the wake of the Manly Pride jersey PR disaster, sports journalist Paul Kent claims rugby league should be apolitical. That could be the stupidest thing he’s ever said, and that’s saying something, says Dave Bloom.
The past fortnight of rugby league media has been tiring, needlessly divisive, and, as is usually the case, has left many fans of the game embarrassed at the behaviour of fellow supporters.
Manly’s decision to wear rainbow stripes on their jersey should have been hailed as a well overdue step forward for the league, recognising the importance of inclusion and diversity within our game, as well as finally representing the LGBTQIA+ community that exists within Rugby League.
Instead, due to poor management by Manly, and the outdated and frankly unacceptable beliefs of seven players (whose belief system itself is a result of oppressive European colonisation), the discourse has turned sour.
What could have been a celebration of the great game of Rugby League has turned into an open forum for the spouting of homophobic rhetoric, both explicit and implicit.
Explicitly, some of the comments on media stories about this topic have been disgusting to say the least, but the implicit comments made by the establishment media seem to have flown under the radar. These comments are far from openly homophobic, but they still make it very clear that they do not support the initiative to include the LGTBQIA+ community, albeit in a more discreet way.
For better or for worse, Paul Kent is one of the most prominent talking heads in rugby league, and as a 50-something cis straight white man, it made perfect sense that his opinion be broadcast at primetime to the rugby league masses.
With all the courage and intellect that he gained through his prolific 1-game first grade career, Kent said, completely unironically about the jersey saga, “Rugby league should be apolitical.” I couldn’t help but laugh upon hearing that one of the most senior journalists in our game either has no knowledge of why the sport came to be, or is so oblivious to his own biases that he doesn’t even hear the words coming out of his own mouth.
It’s not the first time Kent has condemned a so-called ‘political’ stance by the league, after he wrote a column lashing the 2020 NRL season promo for featuring Latrell Mitchell draped in the Aboriginal flag, Women’s NRL stars Karina Brown and Vanessa Foliaki kissing after a match, and a clip of Macklemore performing at the 2017 Grand Final.
Now you might be thinking that Kent is literally outing himself as a racist and a homophobe by saying that this ad made him “angry enough to kick in your television set,” but he reassures himself and his readers constantly by saying that he is against the “politics” of these issues, not the minorities and individuals themselves.
He believes that the sport of rugby league should be completely separate from politics, which would be a perfectly acceptable belief, if you failed to consider the entire history of rugby league.
To summarise it, rugby league was borne out of the need to pay working-class players who were unable to skip their jobs to play sport. Rugby union players were often far wealthier, and even went so far as to place sanctions on players who accepted payments in the sport, believing that rugby was a game for the upper-class, and if you couldn’t take time off work to participate, then perhaps you don’t deserve to be included. It was a way of gatekeeping the sport that ensured it would be dominated by wealthy white people like our friend Paul Kent.
Despite the best efforts of rugby union traditionalists to stifle the game, it flourished and over the next century became a mainstay of the sporting landscape… all thanks to ‘politics.’
While the fascist regime of France during World War II banned the game and set progress back several decades, the Australian game grew exponentially in the years following, thanks to sponsorships, broadcast deals, and rule changes that adapted to modern times.
In fact, the 1956 government decision to allow poker machines in NSW clubs meant that for the first time in history, Australian teams could offer competitive salaries and stop our best talent from playing in England.
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As the game moved into the modern era, the spectacle known as State of Origin was created to allow players the opportunity to represent their true home, not just the city that they were playing in. The new concept was marketed within an inch of its life, and plays on the tribalism of our imagined state borders to rile up emotions of geographical and cultural competition. Sounds pretty political to me.
At the end of the 20th century we arrive at the Super League war, the hyper-politicised corporate battle for the broadcast rights of our so-called ‘apolitical’ game. Multi-millionaires Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch lobbied councils, governments, brands and clubs to choose a side in what was the most tumultuous period of the modern game. The crisis eventually reached a solution, thanks to a bunch of court cases and a whole lot of (sorry Kenty) political manoeuvres by each side, allowing the game to emerge stronger than ever before.
In the modern era, the game has taken a far more active role in social and political conversations, with initiatives like State of Mind (mental health), Voice Against Violence, Men of League, School to Work, as well as ANZAC, Indigenous and Women in League round.
I am yet to see Paul Kent speak out on the political state of rugby league when it comes to ANZAC day, the commemoration of a war we fought for our colonial masters, or even the gimmicks we’ve seen in past years like the Marvel jerseys and the Knights mining jersey.
I must have missed his column deriding the curtain-raiser for State of Origin played between the police forces of NSW and QLD, and I’m guessing I was on holiday when Kent railed against Premiers Perrottet and Palaszczuk for speaking in the press about wanting to host the Grand Final in their state.
It would seem that Kent’s view of an ‘apolitical’ rugby league only gets mentioned when its issues of inclusivity and diversity, as we saw with Latrell Mitchell and now the Sea Eagles pride Jersey.
What we see in the rugby league media is merely a microcosm of what is happening in the broader world of political discourse, that the people who once dominated the conversation are now struggling to come to terms with sharing that spotlight.
The pushback from conservative and right-wing commentators on societal issues of inclusion and diversity echo similar sentiments held by Paul Kent, mostly claiming to have no problem with people of different races and sexual preferences, as long as basically isn’t represented anywhere they can see it.
Those who complain about the politicisation of certain aspects of life have lived their entire existence within the privilege of being apolitical. I’ll give you the hot tip about minorities like Indigenous Australians and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, their entire lives have been politicised.
Just wanting to exist equally has been equated with a ‘political movement’ when what it actually is is basic human rights. Paul Kent and so many other conservative talking heads live in such an insular environment that they are blind to the inequalities they reinforce, leading to a smug and unjustified sense of superiority that benefits only them.
The clip of Kent commenting on the Pride jerseys was posted to Fox Sports twitter page with the caption “Kenty speaks on the Manly jersey situation. What are your thoughts?” This question must have been rhetorical, because Fox immediately disabled the comments, perfectly encapsulating the one-way street of Kent’s opinions and worldview. The very same types of people who will whinge about freedom of speech and cancel culture are also the same people who block dissenting opinions and deny the opportunity for rebuttal.
I’m not sure why I expect Fox Sports to be better than enabling the discriminatory and outlandish views of the dinosaurs they employ. After all, the modern formula for conservative social media pages is to garner comments through controversy, rather than intelligent debate. Perhaps I just hoped that the sports broadcasting arm of News Corpse would favour the inherent diversity of our game, rather than the inherent evil of their company.
If I can sit here as a cis straight white man and be angry enough about the events of the past weeks to waste his entire day furiously writing something most people won’t read, I can’t imagine the hurt and suffering that Kent’s comments have caused to the communities he so nonchalantly diminishes.
There’s no doubt in my mind that rugby league is not just the greatest game of all, but also a game for all to play, and this saga shows that there is still a long way to go before that sentiment becomes a reality.