Manly's new CEO Tony Mestrov has taken a swipe at the NRL club in a telling response to the infamous pride jersey saga. The Sea Eagles found themselves at the centre of one of the game's biggest scandals in 2022 when seven players boycotted their game against the Sydney Roosters in protest at wearing a pride-themed rainbow-coloured jersey - citing religious and cultural beliefs.
The dramatic move sparked a wave of backlash against the club and the players in question, with the Sea Eagles failing to win a single game after the boycott and coach Des Hasler eventually sacked as a result.
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Manly chairman Scott Penn also staunchly insisted after the controversy that his club would go ahead with plans to wear the rainbow jerseys again in 2023, however, Mestrov has since moved to hose down that suggestion. The club's new CEO - brought in after the damage had already been done at the club - admitted the Sea Eagles failed by not consulting the playing group before launching the rainbow jersey initiative.
“I wasn’t here at the time, but from the people who do know me being here now, it’s about communication. There’s no way that for any reason the players shouldn’t have been communicated to. From day one since I got here – I don’t profess to be the coach – (my mantra has been) clear communication from everyone in the organisation, including the players.
“If we can do that in the future, whatever it might be, everyone knows where they stand. I think that’s the most important part about this club moving forward, including the local community, the local sponsors and the local juniors. We should communicate clearly, and we’ve got a clear direction here as well.”
Manly's new coach Anthony Seibold was asked if he thought the team should run out in the rainbow jerseys again in 2023, but did his best to stay diplomatic after largely echoing his CEO's sentiments.
“That’s not for me to talk to at this point of time. That would create a headline, which would be good for everybody,” Seibold insisted.
“One thing I do know about any situation that occurs is that education and communication are key. It certainly hasn’t seemed to be a problem in the very short time (I’ve been here), communicating with the group.”
Manly star Josh Aloiai has already indicated he would boycott wearing a pride jersey again in 2023, if the club or the NRL went down that path again. Aloiai revealed that he and some of the other Manly boycotters received hate messages and even death threats in the wake of their move, however there was also an outpouring of support from within the game - particularly amongst the large community of NRL players who share the same religious and cultural beliefs.
Pride Round decision to be left to NRL in 2023
Mestrov confirmed that any plan for a Pride Round in 2023 would ultimately come down to the NRL, and that it would not be an initiative driven by the Sea Eagles.
“If there’s any overarching initiatives, they’ll be run by the NRL. We’ve been in discussion with the NRL, and any initiative will be put forward by them, not us,” Mestrov said. "We’ve got nothing further to add about us organising a Pride Round or a Rainbow Round.
“The NRL will do the consulting. They will speak to the RLPA and the players and so on rather than a club itself. It works much better that way, we feel."
An NRL Pride Round in 2023 could still be a possibility, despite the game's powerbrokers acknowledging the potential minefield around such a move. Nevertheless, ARL Commission chair V'landys admitted last month that discussions about it had already taken place.
"That's still all to be sorted out. We were always going to look at those things in the off-season, V'landys said. "We have plenty of time, we have 26 rounds and we don't start for three or four months. That will be discussed at the next couple of Commission meetings. There has been discussion, but no final decisions made."
V'landys was at pains to point out that the NRL is keen to keep out of politics and argued that the beauty of the game lies in its ability to offer an escape for rugby league fans. At the same time, the league has previously taken stances on the Yes vote in 2017, with signs of support for marriage equality as Macklemore performed Same Love at the grand final.
"From our end we have always said we want to respect everyone's views. We don't want to get into politics. The reason people watch rugby league is to escape, they don't watch it because you have a political persuasion," V'landys added.
"We want to keep it as much as an escapism sport as possible. But respecting each other, I don't think that's political."
If the NRL do go ahead with a Pride Round, there is also the risk that the issues Manly faced will be experienced across most clubs. Other teams have expressed fears that some of their players would be in the same boat as Aloiai and the 'Manly 7', in that they would be unwilling to endorse LGBTQIA+ values by wearing a rainbow jersey.
"There are ways you can do it where you don't upset anyone. If we do it, we have format to do it the right way. It's all about respecting each other," V'landys added. "We have to respect that (some people) have a different view to the rest of us. The most important thing in my eyes is we're all equal, it doesn't matter what colour, what creed or sexual orientation."
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