Watch enough rugby and it's easy to become blind to the contradictions of seeing alcohol and junk food brands plastered all over a high-performance sport.

It gets harder to see the hypocrisy of a young player fronting the media after an alcohol-related disciplinary hearing and then run out for his team the next week with a beer brand prominent on his team kit.

Here in New Zealand the game's executives are on a drive to embrace diversity, to bury old traditions built around heavy drinking and to promote a culture founded on respect and responsibility. And yet they do so with one hand out collecting cash from the major breweries.

They talk of their pride in their high-performance cultures in one breath and in the next say yes to sponsorship from corporations peddling sugary drinks and fatty foods.


Rugby talks of creating a bright, new, progressive future obviously not at any price, though. It has developed a moral conscience, but it's not yet strong enough to be selective about the products they want their players to promote.

The push-back from those who sign up sponsors is that they are not society's moral guardian or empowered to judge what products should be considered acceptable to endorse. They say brewers, soft drink manufacturers and fast food outlets are not inherently evil.

Which is valid but ultimately a position that leaves rugby bosses open to accusations they are not being as strong as they should.

It is debatable whether elite rugby and beer have been easy bedfellows and given the tainted past, the sense of the sport being culturally defined by the institutional booze sessions, making a clean break and saying no to alcohol sponsorship would give the drive towards inclusion and acceptance greater credibility.

It would also help create less of a contradictory and compromised world for the players.

Managers of provincial rugby academies, particularly Auckland, say many young players come into their programmes overweight and with virtually no idea about appropriate nutrition. It takes two years to persuade them to cut out junk food and needless sugar and then the better players graduate to Super Rugby where they might be asked to promote KFC or Powerade.

Rob Nichol, who heads the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association, says the issue of sponsorship is constantly debated by players. "The players really do care about this," he says. "We have had robust discussion about the role of fast food, alcohol and sugary drinks and we have done a few things at times to distance the players from the overt promotion. We have asked ourselves at what point this becomes uncomfortable and we keep coming back to the same place which is ... let society be our guide."

Nichol's point is that the players don't feel they are the ones who should determine an approved list of product categories whose sponsorship can be accepted.

The players feel they can't influence the choice of sponsors but they can, to some degree, influence the way these associations are leveraged and try to ensure they don't have a negative impact on the vulnerable.

On a moral level, life would be simpler if rugby took a stance at an executive level and no longer associated with brands that conflicted with high-performance cultures. But with NZR taking $62 million in sponsorship and licensing income last year, there is the question of financial sustainability.

If NZR and Super Rugby teams opt to reject alcohol sponsors and fast food chains and soft drink manufacturers it will result in a loss of income and this is where those reluctant to let ethics get in the way of making money, play their trump card.

They say the equation is simple - be moralistic but be broke - which relies on everyone believing the only firms with any desire or budget to invest in rugby are brewers, fast food chains and soft beverage producers.

If that is to be believed it would seem rugby survives only as a beneficiary of a financial cycle accused of rotting children's teeth and making them obese. No one expects rugby to go broke to uphold a set of principals, but surely there is a way it can viably transition to a world where there is more ethical sponsorship?

Rugby is journeying to a modern, less tainted destination but it won't get there dragging the baggage from its past.