Former Highlander and Blues rugby player Michael Hobbs has weighed into the US debate on refusing to stand during the national anthem.
Hobbs, writing in the New York Times, was reacting to the National Football League announcing it would fine teams whose players refuse to stand for the national anthem on the field.
''Among those protesting police brutality and racial injustice were 10 players from the New Orleans Saints who sat on the bench during the national anthem. My good friend Kenny Vaccaro was one of them. We had no idea, however, that Kenny's decision would incite such rage in our donors that it would hinder our project to help kids in Kenya.''
Hobbs, who is doing an MBA at Stanford University and is the son of former All Blacks great Jock Hobbs, has been involved in humanitarian work in Africa.
He became friends with Vaccaro while he was training at the University of Texas at Austin.
''I was a professional rugby player from New Zealand recovering from spine surgery. Kenny, a junior from Brownwood, Texas, was a starting safety on the Texas football team.
''We bonded quickly. Kenny had lost his father to emphysema at a young age, and my father was battling leukemia that proved fatal. We felt the same passion for our sports, and we talked of one day using our platform as athletes to make a difference in the world. I was with Kenny's family at Radio City Music Hall when the Saints selected him in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
''My father became involved in philanthropy toward the end of his life, and I remember his saying that he wished he hadn't waited so long. Almost three years to the day after his death, I took his advice. Then I retired from rugby at 28. I flew to Kenya to volunteer at Blessed Hope Primary School in the Kibera slums of Nairobi.
''All of a sudden, I was reimagining who I was. The identity I had built over my eight-year professional sports career had been solely as an athlete. But my volunteer work in Kenya showed me the impact I could have, using the same determination that I once reserved for rugby. The values I admired in my father and in sport lived on beyond the field. And the amazing children of Blessed Hope who came to school every day with beaming smiles showed me I still had so much to be thankful for.
''I began the Blessed Hope Project and my mission was to raise $300,000 to buy land in Kibera and build a primary school for the more than 200 children I had been teaching in a dirty, overcrowded church hall.
''Kenny wanted to help. As a celebrity in Louisiana, he could raise money. So we launched the Kenny Vaccaro Foundation in March 2017 with a personal contribution from Kenny of $25,000. Within six months, the foundation had received pledges totaling $50,000. I had raised an additional $125,000 from outside donors. Kenny pledged another $100,000. (Part of our work involves doing outreach to schools in Louisiana.)
''Then came that football game one Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, last September. After the protest, half the members on our foundation's board resigned and asked that their donations be returned. Our fund-raising banquet, scheduled for last October 17, was cancelled.
''Kenny wrote to our board members: 'What our country is going through is not something that I have ever experienced in my lifetime. I did not take my decision on Sunday lightheartedly, nor would I expect everyone to agree with it. However, my teammates and I felt an obligation to use our platform to show support for the communities that have been marginalized within our country, some of which we grew up in. Our actions were not intended to be disrespectful; instead, were intended to bring attention to issues that we care deeply about'.
''It didn't make a difference. The board members had made up their minds. Eight months on, we still haven't made up the deficit. Construction of our new school is scheduled to begin in a few weeks, but we are still staring down a $75,000 hole. Our goal is to open the school next January. I'm not sure if we'll have the money in time.
''While finishing my MBA at Stanford, I'm trying to leverage my network here to deliver on our promise to the children of Blessed Hope. For his part, Kenny has not been signed by any NFL team, even though he was considered one of the premier free agents heading into the off-season. Does this have anything to do with his protest?
''We have both learned a lesson about the collateral damage of pettiness and polarization. Kids in a Nairobi slum pay the price.''