On November 25, 2018, most of the All Blacks wore rainbow laces in a test match against Italy.
They did so as a show of support to the LGBTQIA+ community and in solidarity with the openly gay former Wales captain Gareth Thomas, who had been assaulted in a homophobic attack on November 18.
“Hopefully most of the lads will be wearing the rainbow laces,” All Blacks captain Kieran Read said the day before the test.
“It’s a show of solidarity within world rugby and from us here as New Zealanders and All Blacks to show support for that community.”
The decision to wear rainbow laces in Rome five years ago was made by the senior leadership group, was supported by All Blacks management, and then approved by apparel partner Adidas.
The International Rugby Players’ Association, which had initiated the idea, supplied the laces and it was left up to individual players whether they wanted to wear them.
It took five days for permission to be granted to alter the iconic All Blacks kit so the players could visibly display their support for the rainbow community in front of a broadcast audience of millions.
In December 2022, Ruby Tui was approached about taking part in the Weet-Bix Stat Attack promotion, that would, for the first time, include a Black Ferns series.
She asked if her card could feature a rainbow flag in support of the LGBTQIA+ community.
It is understood that discussions between her agent and NZR were ongoing about the request in January, and when she still didn’t have permission to feature the flag, she informed New Zealand Rugby she would not be willing to take part in the series.
NZR chief executive Mark Robinson told Jason Pine on Newstalk ZB last week there hadn’t been enough time to consider the request.
“We remain very open to that possibility in the future,” he said. “We are really up for these discussions and that will continue to be the case.
“We needed to work through that process and have the time to be able to talk about it more. In the timeframes we had, that just wasn’t possible.”
It was in late November 2022 that Sanitarium announced it would be producing a Black Ferns series, which gave it seven months before the cards would be available in July.
Sanitarium says the process of planning and producing the Stat Attack cards typically takes 12 months and told the Herald: “New Zealand Rugby is correct in stating that the timeframe for the production of the Black Ferns series was compressed this year to meet the target in-market date of July for the series.”
But while the production window was truncated, sources with knowledge of the process say they felt there was still adequate time available for a full consultation to take place, citing that precedent had been set in 2018 with the All Blacks’ request to wear rainbow laces having taken just five days to be approved.
NZR has refused to clarify what sort of consultative process it felt it would have needed to have undertaken to have properly evaluated Tui’s request, which parties would have been involved, and how long it felt that would have taken.
The Herald asked Sanitarium whether, if NZR had sanctioned Tui’s request, it would have done the same: “We would have been pleased to include Ruby Tui in this year’s Stat Attack series,” it said.
“In saying that, the request for the inclusion of a rainbow symbol does raise relevant considerations that we believe should be taken seriously.
“These considerations have implications for NZR, our brand and our collective relationship with our customers and community. Sanitarium recognises that together with NZR we now have the opportunity to appropriately consider these issues.
“Sanitarium take seriously the privileged relationship that we have with the families of our customers. Moving forward, we are committed to consultation with all relevant parties to find solutions.”
The question which has arisen in the wake of NZR and Sanitarium being unable to grant Tui’s rainbow flag request is whether they share the same values and level of commitment to support the LGBTQIA+ community.
NZR, which has signed the Pride Pledge and has made diversity and inclusion a priority value since 2017 in the wake of its Respect and Responsibility Review, was able, in conjunction with Adidas, to approve the All Blacks rainbow laces request within five days.
Asked whether it believes it is culturally aligned with Sanitarium and whether the two organisations are driven by the same values, NZR said: “NZR and Sanitarium are firmly aligned on the importance of being welcoming and inclusive of people from any gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
“Both organisations are committed to supporting rugby to be a safe, welcome and inclusive place for rainbow communities.”
Well-placed observers say the inability of NZR to even begin a process to evaluate Tui’s rainbow flag request has highlighted the importance of sports bodies making value judgments about their commercial partners.
Professional athletes of today are significantly more inclined than their predecessors to advocate for personal causes and actively campaign for societal and political change.
In 2021, Cristiano Ronaldo removed a Coca-Cola bottle before a press conference at the European Football Championships. He told the cameras that people should drink water, even though Coke was a major sponsor of the tournament.
Last year the Australian netball team protested a $15 million sponsorship with Hancock Prospecting — to the extent that the owner Gina Rinehart pulled the deal, and just this week tennis star Novak Djokovic wrote a political message on a TV camera at the French Open.
“The way society has evolved, globalisation, the way in which money is coming into sport, I think it has never been more prevalent,” says Rob Nichol, head of the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association.
“It is a moving target, a little bit of a grey area: what was acceptable 15-20 years ago is quite possibly not acceptable now. And some of the associations we have now, might not be acceptable in 15-20 years for whatever reason.
“There is a lot of onus, and a lot of responsibility on sporting organisations and owners to get these kinds of decisions right.
“That’s why it is good to have a set of values and understand what you as a sport stand for.”
It is when there is not a value alignment between the sports body and commercial partner that the potential arises for athletes to advocate for causes that put them in conflict with a sponsor or investor which then compromises their employer.
And it is this question of value alignment which is causing some in the wider rugby fraternity to predict there will likely be future incidents of leading players advocating for causes that put them in conflict with All Blacks sponsors, and NZR has stored up trouble for itself by signing deals with Ineos and Altrad.
Ineos is a UK-based petro-chemical conglomerate which pays $10m a year to have its name on the back of the All Blacks shorts.
Robinson told the Herald late last year NZR was drawn to the emerging story of sustainability playing out at Ineos.
But environmentalist groups have long had Ineos in their sights, naming the UK-based petrochemical conglomerate as one of the world’s worst ocean polluters.
They have also been outraged that Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who is Britain’s richest man, has been lobbying the UK Government to legalise fracking.
New Zealand has felt the full brunt of weather events in the last 12 months that are universally agreed to be linked to climate change, while several smaller Pacific Islands face an existential threat from rising sea levels caused by global warming.
Given how many high-profile players have strong links to the Islands, it seems inevitable in this age of athlete advocacy that someone in the All Blacks will become a climate change activist or an ambassador for an entity campaigning against global warming.
This begs the question of how NZR would deal with a player request to place a Greenpeace symbol on a Weet-Bix card.
Equally, as New Zealand faces a billion-dollar-plus clean-up bill from extreme floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, affected fans who have lost their homes will have every right to question why the national team is associated with a fossil fuel company.
The position with Altrad, which pays an estimated $30m a year for the naming rights to the All Blacks jersey and whose owner Mo Altrad was found guilty of bribery and corruption charges in December last year, is yet more potentially compromising for the national body.
After Altrad was handed an 18-month suspended prison sentence by a Paris court, NZR released a statement which said: “With the verdict against Mr Altrad personally now having been handed down, we will be reconvening with representatives from the company immediately — as well as with our key stakeholders.”
Asked this week whether it remains committed to its Altrad sponsorship, NZR responded by saying: “We have been advised by the company that Mr Altrad has appealed the verdict and so it remains a matter for the courts.”
A sponsorship with a company whose owner has been found guilty of bribery and corruption carries obvious risks.
Tui’s rainbow flag request was meant to be a symbol of support for the LGBTQIA+ community, but it may in fact have been a sign of the trouble which lies ahead for NZR as it increasingly finds itself trying to manage ways for athletes to push personal causes that don’t necessarily align with the values of key sponsors.