Whānau first?

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Pita Hiku (left) and Ken Maumalo (right) following their loss to Melbourne last weekend

What price do we put on family?

In a season already compromised by the enduring impacts of COVID-19, the New Zealand Warriors now face further uncertainty with regard to the health and wellbeing of their players. While a contact sport such as rugby league always has potential for injuries to impact a season, 2020 has thrown more curve balls at players’ mental health, particularly for the Warriors, than any other season in memory.

Three months into the team’s semi-permanent shift to the Central Coast of Australia; with a less than compelling win to loss ratio; hot on the heels of their coaches forced redundancy; the club now faces a player exodus. Three, potentially more, of the current playing group have expressed a desire to return home to their whānau. One of whom has been away from his wife for the final trimester of her pregnancy, another with four young children that he can’t hold, cuddle and kiss at the end of each day, and another who celebrated the birth of a child prior to departing for Australia three months ago.

When the Warriors first sacrificed their families to base themselves in Australia for the benefit of the NRL competition, they did so on the proviso that their partners and children would be given exemptions to join them. Three months in and for some this has not eventuated. For others, it has. This, for those who have been joined by their whānau, is primarily because their partners are Australian citizens or residents. But, what does this mean for those whose partners are not Australian?

As the season continues, and we are constantly reminded that this is a business, and that the players are the workforce, questions need to be raised about the values of the NRL, the code of rugby league and its administrative bodies. For a sport that has, since 1895, held pride in its accessibility and family centred philosophies, what is the value of whānau, of a’iaga, of family?

Currently calls are being made about whether or not these players should be paid if they do not fulfil their contractual obligations. At higher levels, there are also continuing conversations around sponsorship and television rights and the impact that a mass player exodus could have. I get it, I too would expect to have to do the mahi in order to get the treats. But, that said, what does this say of our views of athletes as people. People who, like us, should have every right to return home at the end of the day to their partners and children; to a space that provides release, sanctuary, warmth, and most importantly love.

In my own research I have spoken to current and former Māori and Pasifika NRL players about what it is that gives the most purpose to their careers. Unsurprisingly, an NRL premiership was not at the top of their lists. Whānau and a’iga are the overwhelming frontrunners in terms of why Māori and Pasifika players pursue success in this sport we love. Often they are following their fathers, brothers, and cousins into the sport. This provides a family connection to their journeys beginnings. They play to represent the mana of their whānau. As I noted in my last blog post, our identity is in our name; our name is also our family. As professionals, they play to provide. To provide for their parents and the sacrifices made to allow them to have a coveted career in the NRL, and to provide for their own families, children, and the future generations to come. We can look to the literature to see, for Māori in particular, that a feature of pre-colonial leadership and masculinity was centred on provision and nurturing (Walker, 2004; Borell, 2015).  One participant summarises this when discussing moving away from New Zealand with his wife and daughter:

“I was looking after a team. You know, there was three of us. And I had to um, I was the provider. And, the way we were brought up is your whānau comes first and your own needs come second.”

This brings me to a point about masculinity. In physical contact sports views of masculinity can become distorted. When the British first began settling on our shores, they brought with them established notions of hegemonic masculinity. These were founded upon men as emblematic of strength, courage and machismo. Traits that continue to exist today. These preconceptions of masculinity were quickly attributed to the new ‘warrior race’ and used to explain Māori into a masculinity rooted in violence and physicality. Something that has endured and is still, often quickly, asserted to explain a number of negative statistics around Māori, and Pasifika, offending in violent crimes (but this is a story for another day). Apparently it also explains why Polynesians, in general, excel in contact sports (Chen, 2014).

When I spoke to my participants about masculinity, and what it meant to be a man, violence and physicality did not emerge as a response from any of them. The reasoning behind why they played, their responses to questions of masculinity focussed on provision and family. One participant spoke of wanting to replicate what he had learned from his father “and that was providing, working hard, and being a loving husband, being an awesome dad, and also being able to support us and direct us in a pathway which was we knew what was right or wrong.”

Returning to the current situation, can we blame these men for wanting to be able to be both provider and nurturer for their whānau? In order to provide they must continue to play and yet to be in a position to nurture they need to leave the sport – this is their conflict. My aim here isn’t to force anybody to pay people who aren’t doing their job, more to unearth some of the complexities of why these men may feel compelled to walk away from their roles for the time being. We see athletes on our screens. We support them in their successes, and we remind them incessantly of their shortcomings. But, do we value them as humans?

The point to consider here is not why these athletes might want to return to their whānau. But, more, why wouldn’t they?

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