Seven players in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) will boycott a key match over their team’s decision to wear a gay pride jersey.
On Thursday, the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles will become the first team in the competition ever to don a kit which promotes LGBT inclusivity in the sport.
But players weren’t consulted and some object to the move on religious and cultural grounds.
The club apologised for its handling of the situation.
Coach Des Hasler said the club had made a “significant mistake” that had caused “confusion, discomfort and pain for many people, in particular those groups whose human rights we were in fact attempting to support”.
In a press conference on Tuesday, he apologised to the LGBT community and to the players involved.
“They were not included in any of the discussions, and at a minimum, they should have been consulted,” Hasler said.
Under league rules, players from the same team cannot wear different jerseys.
Local media identified the seven players as Josh Aloiai, Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Josh Schuster, Haumole Olakau’atu, Tolu Koula and Toafofoa Sipley.
Thursday’s game is considered important to the club’s chances of making the NRL finals and the players’ stance has sparked a backlash online.
“What infuriates me (and always has) is that players will boycott over a rainbow but never boycott a teammate if he’s been accused of violence against women or any other morally reprehensible behaviour that they would all agree they don’t condone,” wrote Pam Whaley on Twitter.
Others accused the seven of hypocrisy, pointing out the team is sponsored by a brewery and betting agency.
Hasler said he respected the men’s decisions and is concerned for their welfare amid the backlash.
Former Manly star Ian Roberts – the first-ever former NRL player to come out as gay – says the boycott “breaks his heart”.
“It’s sad and uncomfortable,” he told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.
In a column for the Sydney Morning Herald he implored the seven players to reconsider their position.
“Can you not understand the pain visited upon gay people who, no matter what they do, are disrespected simply for being gay?” he wrote.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese praised Manly for its stance, saying: “It’s important in Australian society that we respect everyone for who they are.”
It isn’t the first time an Australian athlete has objected to wearing a pride jersey. Last year AFL Women’s player Haneen Zreika missed a game after declining to don the jersey on religious grounds.
Few Australian sport stars have come out. Mr Roberts and others say homophobia remains a big issue among fans and players in the country’s top competitions.
Adelaide United footballer Josh Cavallo – who came out in October – has called out the abuse directed at him by crowds over his sexuality.
In 2015 Israel Folau – who has played rugby league, rugby union, and Australian Rules football at the highest levels – was controversially sacked by Rugby Australia for making anti-gay posts on social media.