When an All Black uses his platform to make a pointed political gesture, it's often met with either praise or something approaching disgust.
Those in the shut-up-and-tackle camp stress the importance of a separation of church and state, arguing that sport and politics shouldn't mix. Others cheer on athletes who step over the touchline, seeing sports as an appropriate avenue as any to highlight social injustices.
That dichotomy was thrust back into the spotlight on Saturday night when the national rugby team faced the Wallabies at Eden Park. Led by halfback TJ Perenara, the All Blacks – via their haka – made their usual statement of intent to the visitors, who were looking to take away what has been theirs for 16 years. The All Blacks were sending a clear message: they were there to protect the Bledisloe Cup. At the same time, Perenara was also offering his own form of protection.
In what was the All Blacks' biggest test of the year, Perenara chose to send a political message in the form of the word "Ihumātao" etched on his wristband in bold black letters. Perenara said the statement on his forearm – which was especially visible when he led the haka – was his way of standing in solidarity with the protests happening near the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve in Māngere, where "protectors" are occupying the land to stop a planned housing development by Fletcher Building. He also wore the political wristband in the All Blacks' clash against the Springboks in Wellington last month.
Perenara, like so many people for which Ihumātao has struck a chord, wasn't content just to sit on the sidelines. "I guess for me, wearing Ihumātao on my wrist was a sign of solidarity with our people," Perenara told Māori TV. "It's me showing my support and where my heart lies with it and that's what I can do from afar." Perenara visited the protest site the day after the game and encouraged others to do so, regardless of where they stand on the issue.
Over the years, Perenara hasn't shied away from showing support for causes close to his heart. He was one of the first All Blacks to speak out against Israel Folau's initial homophobic post and has been a strong advocate for LGBTQI rights both on and off the field.
When Folau returned this year with another anti-gay post, Perenara once again showed that his prolific defence extended beyond the rugby pitch. "I don't even know what to say. You are loved, you are valued, you are enough, you are deserving," Perenara posted on Instagram. "I got you."
But not everyone has been supportive of his political outspokenness. When politics enter the sacred halls of the sports arena, fans tend to recoil and reject. "What do athletes know about politics?" "Why can't they just do their job and entertain the masses without injecting their views on social issues?"
The internet and social media have created an atmosphere so thick with political uproar and division that it's easy to see why some might want to preserve the sports field as an apolitical sanctuary. But sport has never been free of politics. Such myopia forgets the immense role sport has always played in social and political movements throughout history – or that the luxury of politics-free sports is a privilege not afforded to everyone. While an athlete activist like Muhammad Ali has now become an almost universally lauded symbol of the American civil rights movement, at the time, he was also chastised for daring to speak out about social justice.
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In 2016, Māori All Black Kane Hames used his wristband, like Perenara, to showcase his support for the Native American protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock during their match against the US Eagles. After the game, coach Colin Cooper warned Hames about displaying political slogans in the future. "He's playing for this team and we are part of New Zealand Rugby and Māori culture, that's our drive and that's what we will all be standing for," Cooper said. "He's been told who he represents and probably moral or political [statements] are not an opportunity to use on this stage."
But what excuse does NZ Rugby come up with now that an All Black has used the rugby field as a vehicle for speaking out on Māori issues? The governing body certainly hasn't been a stranger to using political statements like queer rainbow imagery, especially when it's good for the All Blacks' brand. (NZ Rugby has so far stayed silent on Perenara's political statement, although head coach Steve Hansen said he didn't have any issues with it.)
The All Blacks as a team have long been at the centre of political movements. The 1981 Springboks tour became a watershed moment for racial discussion in New Zealand – back then politics and sport weren't supposed to mix either. The Folau saga has, in turn, led to several All Blacks players and staff placing themselves in opposition to the former Wallaby's hateful rhetoric and in support of those he targeted. Even the All Blacks' use of the haka has positioned the team, at least nominally, as a worldwide showcase (and reminder) of the country's Māori heritage.
That moral clarity, a deeply ingrained tradition for All Blacks past and present, is epitomised by the man who currently leads their war cry before every match. On that rainy night at Eden Park, the All Blacks proved that they were still the most dominant team in world rugby. Their heroic halfback TJ Perenara showed that they can also be so much more.