Super Rugby team the Crusaders has decided to retain its name, despite it invoking a history of violence towards Muslims. The decision made researcher Luke Fitzmaurice angry, so he emailed the CEO of the Crusaders to tell him. To his surprise, he replied.
In June 2019, the Crusaders rugby team announced a comprehensive review of their name, logo, brand and imagery. Following the Christchurch shootings on March 15, the team had come under fire for their embrace of an identity that many people believed inflicted further harm on the communities affected by the shootings. Five months later, in November, the team announced elements of the branding would change but the name would remain.
The Crusaders’ decision made me angry. So last month, I emailed Crusaders CEO Colin Mansbridge to ask if, in light of the shooter’s sentencing, he was ashamed of his organisation’s name. I didn’t expect much to come of the email, but I wanted to add to the chorus of voices asking for the name to be changed. To my great surprise, Mansbridge replied with an offer to talk. We organised a time to catch up the following week.
It is worth revisiting why some people wanted the name to be changed in the first place. Many New Zealanders associate the name “Crusaders” purely with rugby, but the team’s name has far broader origins. It comes from a brutal period in history when the Catholic church spent hundreds of years attempting to seize the Middle East from Islamic rule. The Church sent armies eastwards to conquer the “holy land” on the basis that it was their divine right to do so. Thousands were killed, and the ongoing ideological legacy of the Crusades was arguably just as harmful. The same ideas that were used to justify the Crusades later led to the Doctrine of Discovery, a 1493 declaration from Pope Alexander VI that became the basis of the subsequent colonisation of indigenous peoples across the world.
The Crusades of the medieval period are long since over, but the underlying ideology that led to them is not. To this day the most common imagery of the Crusades is that of armoured knights on horseback. Even more worryingly, the Crusades are increasingly invoked by white supremacist terrorists. The Christchurch gunman was an example of this, referencing the Crusades in the markings on his guns. “The Crusader” is the name of the official newspaper of the KKK.
In an age when concerns about far-right extremism are on the rise, it’s surprising the rugby team chooses to maintain these associations.
Before we caught up, Mansbridge left me a voice message defending the consultation process that resulted in the decision to retain the name, saying he was proud of how it was handled. When the review was announced, Mansbridge said that it would look at “all elements of the brand, from the organisation and team’s values and vision through to the logo and team name”. At the time this seemed positive, as the focus on “values and vision” appeared to create space to prioritise issues of racism and discrimination.
The organisation did engage with members of the Christchurch community, but it ultimately failed to address the deeper issues that led to the criticism of the name in the first place. Would grappling with the issue of racism more seriously have led to a different result?
When I asked Mansbridge about the review, he challenged my statement that it was purely a commercial exercise. He said that during the brand review the values that came through most strongly were community, resilience, identity and success. He spoke about the role the team played in lifting the spirits of the city following the earthquakes, and their commitment to being a community-focused organisation. He said that the use of the word “crusader” is now intended to represent those community-focused values. I think that’s naive – there are hundreds of other words that could do that – but I believed him when he said that’s what they wanted to achieve.
My angry email became a genuine conversation, and I realised that this was someone who believed in the role that sport can play within communities. I still believe the decision not to change the name was the wrong one, and I still think it is naive to think the name isn’t causing harm. But I understood why Mansbridge had told me he was proud of the review. From his perspective, the new Crusaders brand, stripped of its most problematic aspects, could now represent those more community-focused values.
But good intentions are not enough. Ibram X Kendi, an American anti-racism scholar, talks about how it is not enough to just be “not racist”. If we want to address the impacts of racism and discrimination, we must be actively anti-racist. We must commit ourselves to challenging racist ideas and dismantling racist policies. There is no neutral ground here – we either challenge racism, or we perpetuate it.
Sport can have a massive influence in the fight against racism and intolerance. Across the world, teams and athletes are addressing the Black Lives Matter movement and grappling with the role they have to play in it. The Washington Redskins have recently decided to change the name of their team, belatedly acknowledging the harm caused by perpetuating racist caricatures against indigenous peoples. There is even a college football team called the Crusaders in the US who recently announced they would change their name.
Closer to home, there are several examples of rugby players using their platform to effect change. John Kirwan has made a big difference to mental health and Steve Hansen made headlines at last year’s Rugby World Cup for his comments on the same subject. Players like TJ Perenara and Brad Weber have taken a stand against homophobia. Perenara now begins every post-match interview in te reo Māori, acknowledging the mana whenua of the place where he stands. These gestures matter. Like it or not, professional rugby players are public figures in this country, and these acts can have a huge impact.
The Crusaders are the most successful rugby franchise in Super Rugby history, regularly winning titles and producing All Blacks captains. For all their flaws, they are an organisation that seems genuinely committed to its community. Given that commitment, what frustrates me most is how differently this could have gone. I no longer think Colin Mansbridge should be ashamed of himself, but I do think that he should reflect on the fact that this was an enormous missed opportunity.
Imagine the impact that an organisation like the Crusaders could have if they decided to take an anti-racist position on this issue. It’s not just that they’ve made the wrong decision, it’s that they are in a unique position to make the right one. They could help to shift the views of tens of thousands of New Zealanders. But they have chosen not to.
This is a problem that is far bigger than one organisation. Aotearoa, like other settler colonial states, has been profoundly shaped by racist ideas. Our public statues and monuments still overwhelmingly honour the actions of white European settlers. Many of our streets are named after people who deliberately and systematically dispossessed Māori of their land. This problem is bigger than a rugby team, and we all have a responsibility to be part of the conversation about anti-racism.
Sporting teams will continue to have a major influence in this country. Because of that, we need to rid ourselves of the darkest legacies of those teams. We need to confront the reality that the Crusaders name invokes a history of violence that has ongoing societal impacts. We need to realise that the underlying issues of racism and discrimination did not disappear when the Christchurch gunman was sentenced. The Crusaders still have an opportunity to lead that conversation, despite the mistakes made in the brand review last year. They still have a responsibility to be on the right side of history. It’s time they took that responsibility seriously.
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