Gregor Paul: How religion is poisoning New Zealand Rugby

Gregor Paul, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sunday, 28 April 2019, 11:52AM
"The issue, though, is that the game here only seems to cater for only one religion." (Photo / NZ Herald)
"The issue, though, is that the game here only seems to cater for only one religion." (Photo / NZ Herald)

After a couple of shocking incidents in 2016 that alluded to rugby having a problem with the way many of its male players viewed and treated women, there has been a sincere and sustained attempt to clean things up.

It took New Zealand Rugby a while to realise they had to do something; that it was their responsibility to help guide and educate their employees to ensure damaging cultures and attitudes didn't infiltrate professional teams.

NZR finally accepted diversity and inclusion were real things and not boxes to be ticked. Six months later they produced an in-depth document on how the game can be more responsible, respectful and inclusive. A year or so later and it's apparent rugby in this country — across the globe — has another major problem.

Religion, and overt expressions of it, have crept into the game here.

It is common now, almost a show in itself, for players to have wrist bands covered in religious iconography. The cross, albeit badly drawn with marker pen, is worn across Super Rugby on any given weekend. Some players, when they score, clasp their hands in a praying motion, look to the heavens and give thanks.

In some teams, it is not uncommon after the game for a group of players to drop to their knees in the middle of the field and pray together.

There's a valid argument to be made here that this is all part of an inclusive culture. That freedom to express religious beliefs is a human right and players who want to can, and those who don't shouldn't feel any pressure to do so or feel excluded because they chose not to.

The issue, though, is that the game here only seems to cater for only one religion. However much everyone in authority here says they understand inclusion, diversity and respect, they understand it from a Christian perspective.

There is an underlying assumption within New Zealand rugby that if players turn up with religious beliefs, they will be Christian — be it Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Presbyterian, Baptist or whatever.

The prevailing religious hegemony coupled with players who wear the Christian cross so visibly on their person deepens the perception rugby is a game founded in a Christian country, played in predominantly Christian countries, and therefore open only to Christians.

It seems rugby authorities can't connect the dots — that if they allow professional players to be so overtly expressive with their Christianity that they won't have players who hold other religious beliefs knocking on the door to come play.

Specifically, this brings us to the Crusaders' name change — a debate which seemingly hasn't caused rugby bosses any loss of sleep.

It's a sad but inevitable fact of life that any change designed to be more reflective of a changed and progressive, liberal society will be brandished "PC gone mad" by the conservative right.

But NZR needn't fear the inevitable hammering that will come their way if they change the name of the Crusaders and they certainly shouldn't see it as a reason to not do the right thing.

And it is the right thing to do — and it was a problem long before the terror attacks in Christchurch on March 15.

How many Muslims would have enjoyed being at a Crusaders game, watching those horses carrying their sword-wielding knights?

It is surely undisputed that the point of the Crusaders' pre-game theatre was to make the opposition feel the clock had been turned back 700 years or so and that they had been cast in the role of ruling Muslims.

That was offensive full-stop. Not offensive just because 50 Muslims died in a right-wing supremacist terrorist attack the Crusaders' home city.

So the answer to the question of how many Muslims would have enjoyed going to a Crusaders game is presumably none and the chances are quite high that the number of Muslims who attend a Crusaders game on any given weekend is none.

Getting rid of the horses is a start but to do that and then keep the name, reeks of tokenism: it will be a half-hearted attempt to open the door to non-Christians. Keep the name and the club can't be considered truly inclusive. It will be promoting itself as a club tightly wound around Christianity however much it says it's not.

This much should be obvious to NZR but worryingly they have felt the need to bring in a consultancy group to canvass opinion at great expense. At the moment, the name of the club potentially excludes some from feeling they would be welcome.

Change the name and some hardcore fans won't like it, but that's vastly different to being unwelcome.