Sports

Blues Collar Hero: Sure, Sonny Bill Williams is Full of Contradictions, But Who Really Cares?

When it comes to professional athletes, we shouldn't let good get in the way of perfect - because it'll never happen.
April 13, 2017, 8:50pm
Auckland Blues Official Instagram

There was a time when Sonny Bill Williams represented all that was wrong about Australasian pro sports culture.

He was young, handsome, athletically gifted and full of entitlement. You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to understand what happens when a young bloke is handed those things - and signs with a pro sports team. SBW was no different.

There was a low-level drink driving charge in 2005, pissing outside a nightclub two years later – and, infamously, that pub toilet "liaison" with Candice Falzon that was caught on someone's camera phone. For most Australasian sports fans, the event that still sticks in the craw the most is how he ditched the Doggies mid-season in 2008 and signed up for a big money rugby union contract in France back.

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The degree of criticism Sonny Bill received back then was fitting. Walking away from a five-year contract, only 18 months in, without even telling your club is a shameful move that will probably always scar his legacy as an athlete.

Nearly a decade on, SBW is a different bloke. Famously a convert to the Muslim faith in 2008, while playing out his big coin French rugby contract in Toulon, the Cross-Code Offload King seems to have transformed his life.

Highlights of the Auckland Blues vs Otago Highlanders clash where SBW tapped over the bank logos, last weekend. Source: Official All Blacks channel/Youtube.

He's been a personable, accessible and patient role model as an All Black and even handled his return to the NRL – to the Roosters in 2013 - with grace and dignity despite the sour taste he'd left in people's mouths in 2008.

This week, the narrative of Sonny Bill The Selfish, or Sonny Bill The Moral Hero, was tested again when, prior to an Auckland Blues versus Otago Highlanders Super Rugby clash, he tapped over the BNZ logo on his collar.

Cue outrage. Cue support. Cue press releases from New Zealand Rugby, still in damage control after last year's blunders. Cue a prime minister slamming him for not being a good teammate for not weaing the 'right' jersey. Cue columns defending him. Cue talkback radio and Twitter slamming him.

Like anything ever involving SBW, it has been overblown but, really, when you boil it down, there's only really one question to ask. Was it a good thing that he did?

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Now, should there be one rule for Sonny, and another for everyone else? Of course there shouldn't. In an ideal world, all players should be allowed to blank out a bank, alcohol or fast food logo if their heart desires or, like Josh Kronfeld wanted to do in the mid-90s, wear headgear protesting French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

The Sonny Bill Williams story is pretty remarkable. NZRU to accommodate his contentious objection, but AIG ok — Rúaidhrí O'Connor (@RuaidhriOC)April 12, 2017

That shouldn't matter if you're a 100-test All Black, or a 'Canes prop with only a handful of ITM Cup starts to your name.

The world isn't an ideal place, though. There is one set of lenient rules for small group of people, and a whole bunch of terribly restrictive ones for everyone else. This isn't recent development; it's a constant thread through, well, human social history. It's shit, but it's reality.

SBW - now 31 - brings punters into the stadiums, at the end of the day. In Kiwi rugby, only a small handful of individuals can do that. Only Beauden Barrett really comes to mind from the current crop, though Dan Carter, Carlos Spencer and Jonah Lomu had that pulling power in the past.

There's been some shock and disappointment that NZ Rugby, and the bank itself, have allowed SBW to "get away" with this one, but are you really surprised? It was in his contract – a conspiracy theorist might suggest SBW was always planning to orchestrate a move like this for the publicity – after all.

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There's probably contradictions on the way, too. SBW will likely be selected for the All Blacks home three tests against the British and Irish Lions in June and July, and, as Fairfax columnist Tony Smith pointed out this week, will face an moral decision then.

— Gary Jenkins (@GaryOJenkins)April 13, 2017

The All Blacks main shirt sponsors are global insurance giants AIG; a company who were slap-bang at the centre of the historically crippling 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Back then, AIG was the world's largest provider of subprime mortgage bonds and needed a US$182 billion bailout from US taxpayers. Before the storm hit, the company was paying out ridiculously large bonus to its execs.

Since, it has suffered from continued bad press due to its misleading practices dating before 2008; ironically the year SBW jumped ship from the Doggies. Yet New Zealand Rugby did a massive deal with AIG for shirt sponsorship that runs through to 2022, and will have its logo on the All Blacks jumpers during the Lions internationals. Those tests are sacred events in world rugby.

Will Sonny Bill be comfortable pulling on a black jumper with those three letters on it? If he does, does it make him a hypocrite? If he doesn't, does it make him a hero? It makes him both and - at the same time - neither.

Like every human being, SBW is a man of mighty contradictions. He might make a stand on one thing like the bank logo, but then might completely forget or look the other way on something else.

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While it's not perfect, it's life. We all do similar things in our own. Moan about something terrible an athlete does on Twitter, and then do it ourselves at the pub on Saturday night. We try, as hard as we can, to be consistently good human beings – but we almost inevitably fail. So, when it comes to professional athletes, we should never let good get in the way of perfect. Just like us.

Sonny Bill Williams has caused a stir after covering up a bank's logo on his Rugby team's jersey because of his Muslim faith. — IlmFeed (@IlmFeed)April 11, 2017

Quite clearly, SBW's tapping the bank logo is a net positive. It has got people talking about making moral stands on things (even if they aren't 100 per cent consistent) and has got Kiwis talking about how over-corporatized pro sports in New Zealand has become. They're good things, and so is the fact that SBW will have Plunket logos in the place of the bank ones.

Maybe even better than those things are Kiwis are forced to be confronted by SBW's Muslim faith now. Muslim Kiwis have rarely been in high profile cultural positions – but Sonny Bill is. It's often forgotten that he's our first Muslim All Black. NZ sports fans with little knowledge of the faith are being forced to learn about it – and why indeed their rugby hero is making the stand that he's making.

SBW's not perfect and neither is this bank logo stand, but New Zealand is better off because of it all.