Mike Lee: Naming gay All Blacks marks sexuality, not talent

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Openly gay All Blacks would be unlikely to threaten current sponsorship from companies, says Lee. Photo / Richard Robinson
Openly gay All Blacks would be unlikely to threaten current sponsorship from companies, says Lee. Photo / Richard Robinson

While promoting tolerance and anti-discrimination is always a positive move, calling for past or present gay All Blacks to "come out" is at the very least misguided because sports culture has to be - and should always remain - all about performance, not sexual preference.

If any All Black was to come out as a homosexual, he would probably be known as "the gay All Black", rather than an exceptional rugby player and individual. And that could create exactly what human rights groups in New Zealand surely don't want - a step backwards to a time when sexual preference was more of a big deal.

The same could be said for having a Chinese or Indian All Black. Sure, society is ready for this and would probably welcome such diversity but the way people process information means such players would be informally referred to by the fans as "the Chinese hooker" or "the Indian halfback".

Rather than being judged on their ability alone, they might be scrutinised more closely and be under immense pressure to perform even better than average in order to avoid accusations of reverse discrimination.

It's easy for mainstream athletes to support minority peers, because they can't be labelled in the same way as a minority athlete can.

From a marketing perspective, sponsorship companies can easily spin support for gay rights or any other minority issue to their advantage. But this often leads to gaining legitimacy in some markets and losing it in others.

Sport sponsorship companies could use a gay player or two to tap into niche markets, which might label them progressive. But drawing any sort of attention to the issue is unlikely to be an incentive to buy specifically into the All Black branding, since the sponsorship appeal of the brand is that the team is the world's most well-known and respected group of rugby players - not that they're heterosexual or homosexual in their private lives.

Openly gay All Blacks would be unlikely to threaten current sponsorship from companies with strong affiliation to the brand as it stands today. I'm positive the party line from the All Blacks' management and the New Zealand Rugby Union would be that a person's sexual preference is of no relevance in any way, and that each individual is judged by their deeds on the playing field.

Ironically though, integrating gay All Black players could be attractive to the gay community itself. Much of rugby culture is based around rugged manliness, and research has shown that hyper-masculine brands can be popular, in a cliched way, to the gay market.

Think Harley-Davidson, the navy, firefighters - these brands are nearly iconic in certain parts of the gay community worldwide.

All Black sponsorship companies - many of them global giants such as insurance company AIG and sportswear manufacturer adidas - would probably not see any benefit aligning with gay rights, not because they are uncomfortable with homosexuality but because sports brands typically focus on appealing to large rather than niche markets, and sport brands are based on athletic performance rather than sexual orientation.

People say, for example, that feminism is dead because for the majority of us, when we work with colleagues every day, we don't think of them by gender, race or sexual preference any more.

We think of them as the individuals they are.

In some areas, discrimination may still apply, but most industries are moving towards performance-based "discrimination" rather than race or sexual preference, or at least we expect they are.

Here's hoping that in 100 years' time, being gay or straight won't be nearly the issue it is today in all walks of life.

The performance of an individual All Black player should, and hopefully will, always be the main focus of the team - but maybe by then the world will be ready for a Chinese All Black.

Dr Mike Lee is a senior marketing lecturer and brand expert at the University of Auckland Business School.

- NZ Herald

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