By sending three simple tweets to his 800,000 followers this week, Sonny Bill Williams reminded why he is the most interesting - and perhaps important - sportsman in the country.

In the first post on Wednesday, Williams wrote that when his wife left their home he "sat on the couch for 10 min with tears rolling down my face" after "feeling the aroha in the house".

A follow-up, sent a minute later, expounded on his emotions: "Real men cry and I'm learning to feel that joy. you really have to sit with pain or whatever unwanted emotion you have."

And then, the next day, probably after an inevitable pushback from the more unenlightened corners of the internet, Williams delivered a powerful message.


"I'm sorry *sarcasm* if my tweets yesterday were a bit too much for some of you. Don't mind me - I'm just doing my part to try break down barriers of unhealthy thinking men have around masculinity."

It's tough to imagine many high-profile sportsmen even considering the concept of unhealthy masculinity. It's impossible to envisage any other All Black openly expressing such thoughts.

In fact, if asked to personify what it meant to be masculine, many in this country would picture an All Black. After all, they play rugby, for so long - but no more - a bastion of 'manliness'. They appear impervious to pain while constantly crashing into one another. They're hard.

But what Williams this week so helpfully explained is that none of those attributes comes close to defining masculinity. Athletic ability may for some be one trait, but that's all it is: a solitary characteristic on an incredibly diverse spectrum.

All Blacks rugby player Sonny Bill Williams on holiday with his family in Fiji. Photo / Twitter.
All Blacks rugby player Sonny Bill Williams on holiday with his family in Fiji. Photo / Twitter.

As Williams said, it's unhealthy to portray masculinity solely as men doing supposedly manly things - like playing rugby. Such a limited line of thought leads to limited human beings.

Without delving too far into the debate over whether athletes are ideal role models, when so many other people and professions seem worthier of idolisation, there is no denying kids do look up to our sportspeople. And they always will - with All Blacks at the top of the pedestal.

Which means the value can hardly be overstated in having Williams, such a prominent All Black, express an alternative idea of masculinity.

Statements like his will only aid in the complex equation of turning impressionable Kiwi boys into decent young men - the type of men who opt against dangerously bottling up emotions, who treat themselves and others with respect, who are valuable members of a modern society.


That Williams made his comments on social media is especially appropriate when constant connectivity to likeminded individuals has in recent times allowed toxic masculinity to fester.

And online, unfortunately, is not where it remains. Look no further than the scourge of domestic violence in New Zealand, rates of which are among the highest in the developed world.

Williams tweeting about his tears is clearly not a panacea for such grand problems. But the influence of his message, his desire to remove traditional barriers, should not be discounted.

Some people, like Williams, cry at familial blessings. Others, like, I dunno, a friend of mine who definitely exists, cry when the protagonist breaks down to her parents at the end of Inside Out.

The point is it's OK to cry, even - or maybe especially - during Pixar movies. Strength being shown through impassive silence is a myth of a bygone era; being able to express emotions is real strength.


In any case, we all know rugby players aren't really that tough. The toughest athletes in sport are indisputably 70-kilogram Europeans clad in lycra.

While such an assertion is made with tongue firmly in cheek, less it undercuts everything in the previous screed, what else to make of the phenomenal feats of Philippe Gilbert at the Tour de France this week?

Two images will say more about that any of these words. First, there was the sight of Gilbert locking up on a descent, pitching over his handlebars, flipping over a stone wall and tumbling down a ravine.

Then, after Gilbert climbed back onto the bike and rode 60 kilometres to the finish - with a fractured kneecap - came the photo he tweeted of his legs from a hospital bed: one toned and muscular, the other a rolled-up sleeping bag ready to burst free from its constraints.

Perhaps the most amazing thing was the total lack of amazement from those within the sport.

Cyclists do that kind of thing all the time. Sure, riding 60km after breaking a knee is an extreme example, but those guys share more in common with Samuel L. Jackson's character in Unbreakable than they do their fellow athletes.

Broken collarbone? No big deal. A barbed-wire fence? Mere inconvenience. Cyclists are trained to crash - they've been doing it their whole lives.

As for the pain, thankfully, they know some pretty good chemists.