SBW’s quiet evangelism speaks volumes

As we prepare to see Sonny Bill Williams run onto the pitch in a BNZ-free logo Blues jersey this Easter Weekend, debate around the appropriateness of his taping antics at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr stadium continues.

The athlete, a father-of-two and “orthodox Muslim” whose sporting prowess and marketability is recognised internationally, sent a clear message to his employers - and their taskmasters - at last Saturday’s game. Bold, and perhaps a little haphazard, the reaction to those strips of brown tape have thrust Williams, and his principles of faith, into the limelight.

But what was it all really for? And has the cross-code athlete achieved what he hoped with the stunt?

University of Canterbury’s Michael Grimshaw, an associate professor in sociology whose area of expertise includes the intersection of popular culture and religion, believes the level of attention Williams commanded in the past week would not have been possible had he been more subtle in his actions.

“It seems to be a type of grandstanding in a way,” Grimshaw, also an avid rugby fan, told Newsroom. Williams' choice to take to the field without approaching Blues management about his issues with BNZ, and initially provide no public explanation for the tape-over, has resulted in a week’s worth of speculation about the stunt. 

Principles enshrined in Sharia law oppose money-lending practices which charge interest.

Williams, who converted to Islam in 2008, has not only raised the discussion around his faith, but also waded into the wormhole the New Zealand Rugby Union must navigate when the personal beliefs of players collide with the professional commitments expected under their contracts.

Grimshaw said the situation had been particularly interesting for New Zealand because of Williams’ popularity.

“He is a marquee player. He is the first Muslim sportsman to play rugby for New Zealand, and not only that, he is a very orthodox Muslim,” Grimshaw said.

“[In New Zealand], we haven’t really had to think about what it means to have a sizeable proportion of the world’s population religiously opposed to Western banking practices. It’s a type of Islamic evangelism by a type of Islamic witness,” he said of Williams’ stance.

Williams, and other top professional rugby players in New Zealand, have a clause in their collective contracts enabling them to opt out out of promoting banks, finance companies, gambling companies, alcohol companies and tobacco companies.

Several major sponsors for the Blues - and All Blacks - fall into these categories. Health insurance company nib is a principal partner for the Blues, which also count Speights, Sky City and KFC among its sponsor family. Insurance company AIG - which has its logo emblazoned across the chest of the All Blacks jersey - is the national team’s major partner, while Steinlager and ASB are also key sponsors. Investec is also the competition sponsor for Super Rugby.

Last night, Williams discussed his actions in a statement released through the New Zealand Rugby Union. It was also confirmed that the 31-year-old had received special dispensation to wear a Blues’ jersey without the BNZ and Investec logos.

"I want to be clear that this is nothing personal against the BNZ or Investec," Williams said. "My objection to wearing clothing that markets banks, alcohol and gambling companies is central to my religious beliefs and it is important to me to have been granted this exemption.”

While Williams is by no means the first rugby player to have his personal beliefs impact on his professional commitments, the way he chose to express his principles has certainly struck a nerve.

Former All Black Michael Jones, a devout Christian, refused to play any Sunday matches because of his religious beliefs. While his sporting career occurred during a period when rugby was still semi-professional, his approach to ensuring his rugby commitments did not compromise his own personal beliefs was markedly different and seemingly more consistent than Williams.

“[Jones] not playing is different from what Williams did. It wasn’t an employment issue in the same way,” Grimshaw said. “It is also a question of how Sonny Bill is regarded by the wider population as opposed to Michael Jones.”

Jones, who received a lot of criticism for his choice, was not selected for the All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad in 1995 because the quarterfinal and semifinal matches were on Sundays. He also missed several Sunday matches in the 1991 Rugby World Cup. Despite this, he is widely revered and regarded as one of the sport’s gentleman greats.

Williams is a vastly different character, and as Grimshaw points out, perhaps not the fairest type of comparison to Jones.

“He is more than just a player, he’s a type of sporting phenomenon in the way that he’s got social capital ... and because of that he’s he type of player that sponsors are interested in.”

While BNZ has stated it's not concerned about Williams’ stance, companies that invest in sponsorship with professional sports teams like the Blues do because of the pull players like Williams have. Undoubtedly, there will be conversations around how Williams’ actions could affect wider commitments expected of players as part of agreements with sponsors, Grimshaw said. Notably, BNZ has also received a lot of “free publicity” as part of the media attention on Williams this week, Grimshaw added.

“If this had been your bog standard player, would it really have be an issue?” Grimshaw quipped.

By taking such a dramatic stance, Williams “forced the hand of the Blues to react in certain ways”. “Certainly, they can’t afford - especially with the season they’re having - to lose a player like him.”

“The fact that he knew he would be on TV and that he would be noticed with the dark tape ... appears to have been to create attention. He’s using his position with rugby to be able to raise [Western banking practices] as a question - it’s a personal decision but he’s made it in a public conversation. And everybody is talking about him,” Grimshaw said.

Williams also used last night’s statement to draw attention to his faith and its impact on his personal development - answering some of the public criticism that the midfielder had been inconsistent in his objections to sponsors.

"As I learn more and develop a deeper understanding of my faith, I am no longer comfortable doing things I used to do,” Williams said. 

“So while a logo on a jersey might seem like a small thing to some people, it is important to me that I do the right thing with regards to my faith and hope that people respect that.”

"I know I'm not perfect. Every day I work hard to become a better person. I want to thank the Blues and New Zealand Rugby for working with me through this matter over the last couple of days and respecting my religion and accommodating my request."

Sonny Bill Williams’ agent Khoder Nasser did not respond to enquiries from Newsroom. 

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