Manly players will take to the field tonight in their Pride jerseys for the match against the Sydney Roosters, but the controversy over the boycott by several players continues to reverberate, with young LGBTQIA+ fans saying they don’t see the game as “safe”.

The Sea Eagles announced on Sunday their team would wear ‘Everyone in League’ jerseys, with a rainbow strip, aimed at celebrating inclusivity and diversity within the NRL, including the LGBTQIA+ community. The jersey replaced the traditional white lines with rainbow ones.

However, seven players – Toluta’u Koula, Christian Tuipulotu, Haumole Olakau’atu, Josh Schuster, Josh Aloiai, Toafofoa Sipley, and Jason Saab –   ruled themselves out, saying it was against their cultural and religious beliefs.

“I couldn’t physically believe it,” said one young LGBTQIA+ NRL fan who did not wish to be named. “Blatant homophobia in 2022 shouldn’t be a thing.

“[I’m] upset that it could happen at this time. The issue isn’t with them being homophobic, it’s that they’re so outwardly OK with saying it.

“You don’t become gay because you put on a rainbow jersey. It shows a lot of ignorance or a lack of being around people in the LGBT community.

“I feel like any person who is gay feels like sport is not a safe place for them, and the fact that they let that be said out loud is pretty hurtful.”

The controversy echoes the Israel Folau incident three years ago, when the devout Christian was sacked by Rugby Australia for sharing a homophobic biblical meme. It led to a national debate over religious versus sexual discrimination rights.

But it has also highlighted the lack of action by Australian rugby league authorities, who while making moves to encourage inclusivity remain one of the few major sports not to have staged a Pride round.

Manly great Ian Roberts, the first man to ever come out as gay in Australian rugby league, expressed his disappointment at the players’ decision, but told the Sydney Morning Herald he was trying to understand their perspective.

“You live lives where you are respected in many ways for the fine football you play. Can you not understand the pain visited upon gay people who, no matter what they do, are disrespected simply for being gay?” he wrote in a direct appeal to the boycotting players.

“The simple fact is, your actions have added to that disrespect. We want, and deserve, the same respect we extend to you.”

Doesn’t this latest episode show that there is still work to be done in our football community on this?

He praised the NRL’s inclusive initiatives but added: “I’ve been at you for the past five years to have a Pride Round and you talked for a bit, and said it was a great proposal of mine, but then the conversation suddenly stopped. Doesn’t this latest episode show that there is still work to be done in our football community on this?”

Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler, a former Manly teammate of Roberts’, apologised at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, saying the club was very sorry for its mistake.

“Sadly, this poor management… has caused significant confusion, discomfort, and pain for many people,” he said. 

“Our intent was to be caring and compassionate to all diverse groups who face inclusion issues daily. Instead of enhancing tolerance and acceptance we may have hindered this. This was the opposite of our intent.

“We wish to sincerely apologise for the mistakes we have made… to the minority groups within the community who embrace the rainbow colours. We wish to apologise to our own playing group and staff… we accept your cultural beliefs and hope that you can accept our apology.”

The seven boycotting players’ have also had their right to express their religious and cultural beliefs defended, including by Daily Telegraph sports columnist Paul Crawley. He claimed the players were victims of “a political and marketing ploy”.

“It is just an incredibly unfair predicament these players have been put in,” he wrote.

“If the fans or anyone is looking for someone to blame they should be pointing their anger at the club officials who allowed this to happen without the correct consultation from the playing group.

“That is not inclusiveness, it is exclusion.”

However, the young LGBTQIA+ NRL fan doesn’t think this is the case.

“I don’t find it an issue [not consulting with the players] because I would have been more upset to find out later the players were opposed to it so then they shut it down and they never even released it,” he said.

“I do have an issue with them publicly saying they won’t wear it… I don’t think it reflects on Manly or the NRL bad. I think it reflects on those players.

“They really do need to be held accountable.”

Manly will go ahead with wearing the jersey, and will be the first team in the competition’s 114-year history to wear a Pride jersey. In the midst of the controversy, the jersey sold out by Monday night, having only been available for a few hours.

The bombshell comes on the eve of not only a major step for inclusion by the Sea Eagles, but also of a potentially season-defining game for the Manly side, as they fight for a hotly contested finals position. 

Manly will instead field a severely weakened team at Brookvale Oval featuring three debutants – Pio Seci, Zac Fulton and Alfred Smalley – after an unknown number of other potential debutants similarly stood themselves down. 

James Segeyaro will also make his NRL return after last playing in 2019.

Main image has been modified into a montage of “Josh Schuster” by NAPARAZZI and Pride jersey from Manly Sea Eagles Store.