16 Apr 2017

SBW vs BNZ: conscientious objector riles the critics

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 16 April 2017

The Sonny Bill Williams ‘collar-gate’ controversy had all the ingredients for the news media: the national sport, a celebrity, big brands and big money  - with a dash of religious culture clash on the side. But was it really a story?

Radio Sport's Tony Veitch vents on video about SBW's collar cover-up.

Radio Sport's Tony Veitch vents on video about SBW's collar cover-up. Photo: screenshot

It didn't take long for viewers of the Blues vs Highlanders game last weekend to notice Sonny Bill Williams had blanked out a bank's logo on the collar of his shirt.

Last Wednesday he confirmed the conclusion the media had jumped to - it was an expression of his faith.

In an opinion piece for the Newshub, sports reporter Ross Karl said the episode had taught him something new.

"It wasn't until yesterday I learned Islam has a different set of banking rules when it comes to charging interest. All I knew was the system I'd been born into," he wrote.

"Who would have thought a rugby collar could expand past your neck and open your mind,?" he asked.

Sonny Bill Williams isn't the first Muslim sportsman to refuse to promote a sponsor on his shirt.

Cricketers Hashim Amla and Imran Tahir opted out of being human billboards for the beer brand backing South Africa’s one day team. In England, Senegalese footballer Papiss Cisse refused to wear a Newcastle United shirt bearing the name of a sponsor in the business of giving short term credit at punishing rates of interest.

Working on the assumption that SBW was taking a similar stand, Radio Sport's Tony Veitch said last weekend SBW makes his own rules and is "the most controversial sportsman we've ever had".

More than 5000 comments on his Facebook page proved it was a genuine story, he told listeners. Caller after caller to his Veitch on Sport show condemned SBW for "disrespecting team culture" and making himself "bigger than the game".

On his Newstalk ZB show - which is, coincidentally , sponsored by BNZ - Mike Hosking said SBW was "potentially undermining all that sport stands for," though even by Hosking’s own logic it could only be sponsored professional sport being challenged.

Hosking said SBW's outstanding talent and profile gave him the clout to set his own terms and conditions - and Hosking knows all about special rules for special talent.

In 2012, TVNZ had to create a special policy to ensure he didn’t talk about Sky City on air, because he had a commercial relationship with the company TVNZ had been unaware of until The Herald on Sunday reported it.

Mike Hosking criticises SBW in an online comment sponsored by the bank SBW blanked out on his collar.

Mike Hosking criticises SBW in an online comment sponsored by the bank SBW blanked out on his collar. Photo: screenshot

Prime Minister Bill English gave the collar-gate story further legs on TV3's AM show last Monday.

"I don't understand all these professional contracts, but if you're in the team, you're in the team. You wear the team jersey," he said. 

The Herald said Mr English had "reluctantly" weighed in, but its story was headlined:

"Prime Minister Bill English slams SBW sponsor snub".

It makes you wonder just how hard Bill English hits an issue when he’s not reluctant, though it’d be hard to beat up the story any more than the news media have this past week.

Did SBW break any rules?

No. Most professional rugby players have had the same right of conscientious objection in their contracts for about ten years, and in any case BNZ said it wasn't bothered by SBW covering up its logo. New Zealand Rugby general manager Neil Sorensen told Morning Report SBW had already opted out of promotional work for All Blacks sponsor AIG, and other top players had opted out of promoting fast-food maker KFC because of concerns about obesity in the community, or even their own whānau.

Religion expert Prof. Peter Lineham on TV3's the Project.

Religion expert Prof. Peter Lineham on TV3's the Project. Photo: screenshot

Did the story deserve so much attention?

In the New Zealand Herald last Tuesday, the often-contrary columnist Chris Rattue concluded it was.

"For starters, it's refreshing to know that New Zealand Rugby has a conscientious objection clause, and it appears that SBW has broken new ground by not just limiting the objection to skipping promotional events," he wrote.

"It raised questions around freedoms versus economic imperatives, with wide-reaching ramifications if other players took similar stands, Rattue said.

The Dominion Post backed SBW last Wednesday, and the tempered response of the Blues and BNZ.

“It's an acknowledgement that they are individual human beings with their own beliefs, not just herd animals. It might have been better handled, it leaves a few questions about consistency, and lesser mortals might not pull it off, but rugby – not exactly a fount of ethical debate over the years – is surely big enough to handle the odd spasm of religious diversity,” the paper said.

In the same paper's sports section, longtime sportwriter Kevin Norquay awkwardly compared SBW's "conscientious objection" to the "Conchies" of World War One.

If rugby were war, if 2017 was 1917; Williams might have been forced into a logo-laden Blues jersey, handcuffed to a post with his hands dragged behind him, his feet lashed with a rope and left out in Rugby Park, Invercargill in mid-winter, he wrote.

His point was that Williams could not be faulted for his principles - and for standing by them in the face of flak.

"Bill English might argue for everyone being the same, but a few roaring Lions make for a better team than many mindless sheep," Norquay said.

Clearly there are many in the game - and in the media  - who reckon taking a principled stand on something outside the sport means he thinks he is “bigger than the game”. (Though he wasn't in 2012, when economists told the NBR SBW heading for Japan would make no difference to rugby, and comparing him with the effect of PSA on kiwifruit).

In the Herald on Thursday, Dylan Cleaver was even more succinct:

"SBW is a Muslim. It's not just a phase. Yes, that makes him a bit different from most of us. It's high time we got the hell over it," he wrote.

Hopefully many more people will have when SBW next appears at an event - or in a jersey - which could conceivably contradict his beliefs and leave him open to spurious charges of hypocrisy.