Openly gay NRL great Ian Roberts says he’s keen to meet with the seven Manly players who are choosing to sit out the club’s round 20 game rather than wear a new jersey celebrating LGBTQI inclusion.
Jason Saab, Josh Aloiai, Josh Schuster, Tolutau Koula, Christian Tuipulotu, Haumole Olakau’atu, and Toafofoa Sipley have cited religious concerns with the Sea Eagles’ pride design, with rainbow stripes replacing their jersey’s usual white hoops.
The players say they were not consulted about the design before it was unveiled to the public on Sunday night.
While playing for Manly in 1995, Roberts, now 56, came out as gay and remains the only Australian male professional rugby league player to do so.
“I fully respect those players who are choosing not to play and their right not to play with their religious beliefs,” Roberts said.
“It’s such a delicate, difficult subject matter because you don’t want to be disrespectful to people and their beliefs.
“I’m all about education … I would love, given the opportunity, to be able to sit down at a table with those guys and just have an open conversation with them, to try to explain what a pride round means, particularly for the LGBTQIA+ community, what it means to us.”
Roberts said making those with religious beliefs feel isolated was the last thing he hoped a game celebrating inclusion would do.
“It isn’t a thing of exclusivity. It’s just about welcoming and saying to the LGBTQIA+ community, you are part of the greater community and you are welcome here,” he said.
Roberts said lives could be saved if those with differing views held open discussions.
“I’ve lost friends to suicide and I’ve seen the consequences of what homophobia, transphobia, and all the phobias can do to people,” he said.
“I don’t want to start quoting the terrible statistics that we know about the LGBTQIA+ community and self-harm. But those are the types of consequences that come when there is pushback against stuff like (the inclusion jersey). This is what discrimination can do.”
Roberts said he was heartened by the Sea Eagles’ decision to persist with wearing the jersey, and thanked coach Des Hasler and captain Daly Cherry-Evans for fronting the media to affirm the club’s commitment to inclusion.
“I thought their authenticity, their sincerity, was wonderful,” he said.
“(Hasler) did the right thing in saying they got a few things wrong (by not consulting the players) … that was very brave.”
Hasler said he planned on speaking with Roberts soon.
“I personally played with Ian Roberts and wholeheartedly admire his contribution to the game, and also society,” Hasler said.
“The role he has played at our club, in the NRL and the community cannot be understated.”