Gregor Paul: Sonny Bill Williams unlikely to set precedent

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It's worth pointing out that every professional player in New Zealand has a conscientious objection clause in their contract.

It's written into the Collective Agreement, which states: "If a player does not wish to perform any particular employment services on the basis of a conscientious objection (which for the avoidance of doubt means genuine family, ethical or religious grounds but does not include his own commercial interests), the player may request that the NZRU (or a Super Rugby club or provincial union (as the case may be) consent to the player being excused from that activity, such consent not to be unreasonably withheld."

Employment services, as stated in the Collective Agreement: "Means playing services, promotional services and media interviews and associated travel".

The clause has been a long-term staple of the employment relationship between players and the New Zealand Rugby Union.

The clause is there as a realisation that some players may indeed have legitimate objections to being asked to partake in certain promotions that go against their personal beliefs.

Why, as an example, should a player with a history of abusing alcohol which may have endangered his contractual status and led to a misconduct hearing, be expected to endorse or promote a beer brand?

The New Zealand Rugby Union has to be conscious that the sponsorship partners it brings into the game may leave some players feeling conflicted and opens them, as an employer to accusations of hypocrisy if they didn't have an opt-out clause.

It is both reasonable and sensible for the clause to exist because the agreement between the national body and professional players is underpinned by a mutual desire to operate with one another in good faith, to create a strong and lasting relationship and to encourage player retention and to reward loyalty.

What Sonny Bill Williams has done, by lodging an objection about having to wear the BNZ and Investec logos on the Blues playing jersey, is test the parameters of the clause. It is unlikely that when the conscientious objection clause was written into the Collective Agreement that anyone envisioned it being applied the way it has.

Playing jerseys have long had sponsors logos on them. It's a major part of rugby's revenue stream that funds player retention and rewards loyalty - the common goal at the heart of the Collective Agreement. Players have accepted they may not necessarily like or use the products or services of the companies on their playing jersey, but that's not historically been considered sufficient grounds to lodge an active protest and seek permission to cover them up.

And in truth, few players feel strongly enough about the morality or ethics of the companies who have invested in rugby to take a stand.

But Williams obviously feels more strongly about this than his peers. His actions are being portrayed as him being subject to different rules to his teammates, which is partly true, but not because of any desire to consciously be so, but because he is the only Muslim contracted by the NZRU.

Due to his religious beliefs, he obviously doesn't want to feel complicit in promoting a company whose entire business is built on money lending, so he's tested his right to not have to do so and, for want of a better term, has won his case.

A unique Blues jersey will be made for Williams and when he wears it, presumably this weekend against the Hurricanes, the question will be whether he has set a precedent?

It's unlikely that he has. His teammates respect his stance and depth of beliefs but don't share them. None have legitimate religious grounds to object the way he has and
ethical objections are harder to lodge and come with the obvious risk that if significant numbers of players start covering up logos, future sponsorship income is going to be compromised.

Players have principles but they also have financial obligations and there would have to be a compelling reason for the former to be allowed to impede the latter.

- NZ Herald

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