Rugby League's horror week shows a sport wrestling with its place in society

IT'S BEEN JUST another normal week for rugby league. From eye gouging, to dressing room vaping to refereeing blunders and threats of legal action. And now a news cycle dominated by seven Manly players who refused to wear a Pride jersey.

All of this in the wake of a remarkable State of Origin Game 3 that received plaudits across the sporting world. It's fair to say the shine of that night in Brisbane has worn off.

The events of the week on Sydney's Northern Beaches have left a bitter taste in the mouth of all those involved in the game, and has led to an unseemly and damaging culture war being played out in the media and the community.

To recap. On Monday, Manly Sea Eagles released photographs of three players in a one-off Pride jersey to be worn in this week's match at Brookvale against the Roosters. So far, so good. Pride initiatives are common place in sport. However, by late afternoon the story turned. Seven players had decided to refuse to wear the jersey, reportedly on "religious and cultural grounds," and the club was accused of ambushing the players with the jersey.

By Tuesday evening, Manly coach Des Hasler had launched a remarkable mea culpa on behalf of the club, apologising for the botched rollout of the initiative and the pain caused to both the players and the LGTBQI+ community.

24 hours later, the players had been advised to not attend the game for their own safety, pictures of Hugh Jackman wearing the jersey emerged -- seemingly from weeks ago, Manly sold out of replica versions in record time, and the rugby league airwaves and column inches were onto a third day of tub thumping on the subject of "NRL bigotry" versus "Keep woke politics out of our game". All of this around a club that plays out of 4 Pines Park -- a local brewery -- and week in, week out wear the name of PointsBet on their jersey, with neither the alcohol nor gambling connections seemingly not an issue to the group.

Keeping up?

It's been a disastrous outcome from an initiative that was not just well meaning, but integral to ensuring that all walks of life can feel welcomed and represented. An outcome we've seen globally, most recently with the Tampa Bay Rays in MLB. There's no doubting Manly botched the roll out by not bringing the group together earlier and having the opportunity to educate the players, listen to their perspectives and mitigate any issues. However, the blame is not solely on the shoulders of those at the Sea Eagles, who's positioning of the Pride jersey was the action of a progressive, modern organisation.

In so many ways the NRL has been a leader in Australian sport in embracing the LGTBQI+ community, from the, at the time, controversial decision to have Macklemore play Same Love at the 2017 Grand Final, to being an active participation in Sydney's Mardi Gras. But the events of the week have cast a shadow over the code and left the biggest question up in the air. Are we actually inclusive?

One of the knee jerk reactions of many has been to say the player's views are just as important as the Pride campaign, and that they are entitled not to wear the jersey. Well, that happened. The club continued as planned, the team ran out last night without seven regulars, but the rainbows remained. As they should. The player's views were articulated and the club did not force them to play.

But by allowing the Manly Seven to skip a Pride game, is it showing that rugby league is a truly inclusive sport? A sport that strives to be of global significance with regular talk of games overseas and cracking the United States, yet a sport that can't find a team in Australia west of Penrith and can't seem to countenance a desire to play for your country of origin over State of Origin. A sport where media commentators think Pasifika players should be forced to wear NSW Blue but not Manly rainbows. It's a confusing spot we're in.

Because true inclusivity isn't optional. Everyone has to be along for the ride if you are serious. Everyone needs to be educated as to why this is important. Why this is right. The players at Manly -- and a multitude of other clubs -- are not being excluded from any activities for their religious views, whatever they may be. They chose this.

We celebrate Indigenous round every year, and this weekend is the NRL wide Women in League round, a much lauded event each year. Yet here we are.

On NRL 360, former Roosters half Braith Anasta, while disagreeing with the players stance, spoke of the pain the seven would be going through and the difficult time they would be having. No doubt. But this was a public decision they made and a decision they have to wear.

On the flipside, the LGTBQI+ community -- including many in rugby league, out or not -- are once again being dragged through the mire. As the ever impressive Ian Roberts, the first to come out in rugby league and former Manly player, said in the Sydney Morning Herald, "Can you not understand the pain visited upon gay people who, no matter what they do, are disrespected simply for being gay? The simple fact is, your actions have added to that disrespect. We want, and deserve, the same respect we extend to you."

Manly owner Scott Penn finally addressed the media on Thursday, standing by the initiative, yet at the same time appearing to trackback on future plans.

"Maybe we didn't get the label right this year. But in the end we have to move forward. And that's my priority. Maybe we call it respect round. Or everyone in league (round)," said Penn.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. Respect. In trying to be all things for all people, the sport has ended up standing for nothing, and whatever the intentions, last night's rainbows will be remembered for the seven who refused to wear it, rather than the 13 who did. Pain and disrespect will only continue while inclusion remains purely an initiative in rugby league rather than a behavior.