Hard men of league offer good off-field example

Members of a student rugby team pray together before their match.
Members of a student rugby team pray together before their match.

I might be disclosing my questionable taste in music, but I remember reading interviews with both Guy Sebastian and Britney Spears when they were both at the beginning of their careers. Each of them was asked about being a role model to young people. Britney responded that she did not want to be a role model, which I suppose was fair enough. Guy said that whether or not he wanted to be one was beside the point – he realised that he was one, and so would behave accordingly.

I was thinking about those interviews this past week with a couple of stories appearing about the public display of faith from rugby league players.

There was the Easter Sunday report that, as part of his contract negotiations, Bulldogs player Will Hopoate agreed with club management that he would not be required to train or play on Sundays which would be reserved as a day for rest and worship. This means he would miss at least three games and, although Hopoate has not confirmed it, this would include the grand final if the Bulldogs were to make it.

That it was part of Hopoate’s contract negotiations is evidence that team officials considered him to be of sufficient value to make him worth it, even with the missed Sundays taken into account. Rugby league at its highest level is as much a business as it is a sport, and so the decision to accommodate Hopoate’s request would likely have been influenced by commercial decisions as anything else. In fact, Bulldogs’ coach Des Hasler told media that it was Hopoate’s faith which distinguished him as a player, making his religious conviction an asset and not a distraction.

It appears that Hopoate’s faith is so integral to his identity that management realised asking him to put his beliefs aside and play was not a realistic request, because he has shown that faith is not something which can be separated from his identity.

Nor does it have to be.

A number of the reports about Hopoate’s decision declared that he had chosen faith over football. That is not the case at all. Instead, what Hopoate has done (with the co-operation of the Bulldogs), is to demonstrate that sporting excellence and faith are not mutually exclusive. Hopoate is showing that you can be an elite athlete and a person of faith at the same time.

Two days after the report about Hopoate, there was a story about the re-emergence of displays of faith on the rugby league field. At the end of an Easter Monday game between the Parramatta Eels and the Wests Tigers, a group of players from both clubs – seven in total – formed a circle, and bowed their heads in prayer. The report said it was the first time it had happened on a rugby league field. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but it might be the first time in recent memory.

The report mentioned other displays of faith being regularly seen in the NRL – wrist tape being strapped on in the form of crosses, pre-game prayers in the dressing room, and group Church attendance by players which transcends clubs and even codes.

While one can be cynical or at least sceptical about such a public display of faith, it is explained by those involved as having a twofold purpose: firstly, to remove stereotypes of Christians being “soft”, and secondly, to ensure that players turn to God in both victory and defeat.

I think it has a third purpose as well.

Like Guy Sebastian and Britney Spears, these players are role models whether or not they seek that status. Young people, and more than a few old people, look up to them as leaders. A public display of faith points those who would look to these players to Someone else.

It can also an example to people of faith, showing us that the pursuit of excellence in our chosen profession – even in fields which often seem to be faithless – can be an occasion to bear witness to Christ.

It also shows us that we all have a role to play in keeping the Sabbath holy. A number of weeks ago, I penned a piece in which I spoke about the Productivity Commission’s recommendation that weekend penalty rates be cut because “Sunday is not special anymore”. Sport, like many other things, is a product for the general public to consume, and consumers driving the demand to be entertained on Sundays and not setting them apart from other days of the week. We can contribute to a lesser demand for “entertainment” on Sundays by using them for rest and worship.

Yes, these players are not Catholic and we have seen many who try to use surface-level Christianity to their advantage, and so there are many reasons we can find to distance ourselves from their efforts. But I am of the belief that God is able to use any situation to bring people to Himself and His Church. And this is a good start.

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