Flat White

Race, sex, and rugby

1 August 2022

4:00 AM

1 August 2022

4:00 AM

Sport has been an unlikely ground for the games of race, sex, and power to play out, but last week I wondered if it may be the best place to re-assert our right to cultural boundaries from an increasingly totalitarian elite.

Something people may not know about me is that I once loved rugby. It is not just the physical spectacle I loved about rugby, it was the anticipation, the rivalry, the camaraderie, and coming home on a Friday night in Super Rugby season knowing that the best players in the world were getting ready to clash somewhere. You are part of a tipping pool, the banter, the texting, and the social media gloating (or remorse). Not only that, I loved going to the games with our daughters and the butterflies I would feel as we filled the stadium, screaming until I was hoarse, and jumping as the ball went over the line.

I was reminded of my lost love for rugby recently when I watched two documentaries on Netflix back to back, one on Dan Carter and the other on Jonah Lomu. Both players possessed the most hallowed combination in rugby of speed and strength and were breathtaking to watch in full flight. As I watched the stories of these men, I noticed something that we are not able to talk about with a level of intelligence or balance.

Carter didn’t seem to come from a particularly wealthy family, but his talent was combined with a culture that worships rugby. He received the best training in the world and enjoyed tremendous family support. Jonah Lomu, on the other hand, was from the wrong side of Auckland. Lomu received a scholarship to attend a good private school and was guided to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by his remarkable talent by his strong mother. Lomu had a difficult and painful relationship with his father.

You could find two people of shared ethnicity with the same disparities as Lomu and Carter, but that is not the reality here. Polynesians are among the poorest people in the world and their stories of sporting success are often those of rags to riches, intertwined with the navigation of cultural and religious minefields.

Even though Carter clearly had many advantages of ‘privilege’ over Lomu, it was being a leader in the Tongan community and religion that brought meaning and richness to Lomu’s life. Like many Polynesians offered the wealth and fame that sport can bring, Lomu was never asked to hand over his soul for the sparkling wages that come from the business of sport.

The difficulties Polynesians face in sport first came to my attention a few years ago when I read a beautiful piece by Israel Folau in Athletes Voice. Folau wrote about being a Polynesian boy and man in Australian culture and in Australian sport.

Folau was such a tremendous talent that many of us felt he may one day be our very own Jonah Lomu. Then came the meme – the famous career-crushing meme – on Folau’s Instagram account from April 2019 that stated:

‘Warning, Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters, hell awaits you, repent, only Jesus saves.’

I know it word for word because it is still there on Instagram. Keeping it up has cost Folau more than most of us would give to pretty much any cause.

Had Folau been out on the weekend with a harem of women and then hypocritically called people fornicators, we could assume the ideas expressed in the meme were of dubious intent. But there is nothing to suggest that Folau is not deeply committed to his religion, and in all sincerity worried about the mortal souls and eternal salvation of people who stray from the strict conservative morality of the Bible.

This was, for me, a clear case of religious speech.

What happened next exposed the workings of cultural control in Australia and how it hasn’t seen a revolution, just a change of branding.

We can’t talk easily about how sport can lift racially marginalised individuals out of poverty and harmful paths, as it did for Lomu, or how cultural conflicts can cause difficulties for Polynesians in Western societies where they live and work, like it did for Folau. We definitely can’t notice the way adherence to traditional cultures or religions can be a salvation for a young man amidst the vacant hedonism offered to them by Western culture. It seems we can only talk about traditional culture and religion as something in need of reform. When I was on the Left, we would have called this colonialism or referred to the money involved in sport as cultural and economic imperialism.

What has happened to Folau has made me embarrassed about the way our country continues to treat Indigenous people and Islanders in sport, as if their race is nothing, or that it is everything.

Almost as soon as the issue blew up, high-profile personalities on the Left distanced themselves from Folau and made it clear that diversity in Australia was condition upon the acceptance of the new Australian corporatised system of marketable ‘values’. Folau had the audacity to prefer his culture to the one he was being offered by a Woke corporation.

Cultural elites wield ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ as puritan virtues that all must adopt, in the same way that colonisers have always wielded ideology, not just to minority racial groups but also to the great unwashed masses. A Polynesian man can come to Australia and entertain us with his physical beauty and talent, but he dare not choose his own sexual morality, and he certainly may never express it out loud.

In the latest saga of Manly players rebelling against the rainbow corporate dictates, we again see the cultural elite lecture Polynesian men for dissent.

Even the wholly unrelated suicide of gay people in the wider community is being used to emotionally manipulate and bully Polynesian and Muslim men to defy their deeply personal religious views.

Ian Roberts, the first ‘out’ gay man in rugby league, has said that he would like to ‘sit with the players … and explain the effect of their actions on the marginalised group’. The ignorance and patronising nature of this statement can barely even be believed.

The way Australian Rugby treated Folau and his wife destroyed the joy of rugby for me. It is not just that Folau has been sacked, both Israel Folau and his wife have been mercilessly harassed about their beliefs. Israel’s wife Maria retired as an elite netballer with a 150 cap career with the New Zealand Ferns, but media reports of her career are littered with mentions of possible wrong think because of her refusal to distance herself from her husband’s beliefs.

Maria Folau is also Tongan, and at 188cm she is only slightly shorter than her husband. They make a physically striking couple. Given their beauty, skill, and success, they should have been the quintessential celebrity couple for a sport-obsessed nation like Australia. We should be seeing their smiling perfectly teethed faces strewn all over New Idea, but we are not, and I am not going to pretend this has nothing to do with race.

We are given a choice to place race into a colour-blind framework on the Right or into an American Critical Race Theory model on the Left. On one side we pretend not to notice colour and on the other side, we pretend not to notice culture and religion intertwined with race. I refuse to do either.

I am pleased that over the years since the Folau controversy the dissidents have grown and we have seen some unlikely support for the rainbow rebels. Many sensible members of the LGBTQ+ are saying they can live with the idea that religious people are worried about their mortal soul. The expression of that unpalatable part of the Christian religion is the price they pay for being able to express their own beliefs, including the belief that their sexuality is based in sex, not gender, and that gender nonconformity is not a medical condition.

The new state religion is just as puritanical as the old and quite a lot less forgiving. The liberal idea of agreeing to disagree is again being replaced by old fashioned tribal hierarchy of belief.

Colonising is not about colour, it is about flattening our culture into uniformity. The truth is that people do suffer disadvantage because of their race, sex, sexuality, and their religion. But alienation and suffering are not unique to gay people, and it is not cured by imposing a state-mandated ideology.

It is time for the Christians, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters, and drunk sports lovers of all colours to unite. We bow to the priests of the new state progressive religion at the cost of diversity, kindness, talent, and for me, the love of the game they play in heaven.

Edie Wyatt has a BA Hons from the Institute of Cultural Policy Studies and writes on culture, politics and feminism. She tweets at @MsEdieWyatt and blogs at ediewyatt.com

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