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Hurricanes Poua perform a haka on March 9, 2024 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Hurricanes Poua perform a haka on March 9, 2024 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

OPINIONSportsMarch 12, 2024

Women’s sport has always been political – it’s about time the CEOs embraced it

Hurricanes Poua perform a haka on March 9, 2024 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Hurricanes Poua perform a haka on March 9, 2024 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The Hurricanes Poua have been accused of offending the government with their revamped haka. Women’s rugby advocate Alice Soper explains why a bit of politics in sport can go a long way.

Super Rugby Aupiki opened the 2024 season on March 2 with a haka from the Hurricanes Poua. Such an occurrence in itself would be unremarkable in this women’s rugby competition. Aside from the Blues, each Aupiki franchise has a team haka they perform at the beginning of every match. Chances are you’ve seen these highlights promoted in your timeline. However, it was the variation of the haka performed by the team from the capital that has led to outrage. The Poua laid down a challenge, not just to their opposition of the day but to the political agenda of this coalition government and its approach to Māori. In response, Hurricanes CEO Avan Lee said he was “disappointed” and that the Hurricanes franchise would apologise to the government as he did not believe his teams should be making political statements. For the Poua’s second game this past weekend, a less “spicy” haka again prompted a backlash, notably from the deputy prime minister.

“Sports and politics don’t mix!” cry those whose participation in sport has never been politicised – apparently blissfully unaware of the political origins of the slogan they now speak and its place in our most divisive moment in sporting political history. They yearn for a reality that has never existed. Well, not for women in sport anyway.

Across codes, the origin story of women’s sport is more or less the same: women’s participation was at one time considered unthinkable by those who administered it. Doctors told us playing “would prove deleterious from both a physical and temperamental standpoint”. That our bones were softer than cis men’s bones. That we were fatter and less muscular, and not as stable on our feet as cis men. 

Some predicted a wider code downfall, declaring “a falling off in public support would also result from enabling girls to play the game”, while others were bald-faced in their sexism, stating in regards to my chosen sport: “If rugby is a girls’ game, then the men who play it must be a lot of ‘sissies’.” 

Barbara Cox in the 70s (Images: Cox family collection)

Nevertheless, women persisted. The modern era of women’s sports coincided with the women’s liberation movement. As New Zealand football legend Barbara Cox tells it, “It was the 70s and there was a lot of stuff in the paper about equality.”

So women’s introduction to sport was via protest, making politics a part of our DNA. The clash of the past week between cultural and commercial sensitivities at the Hurricanes was as inevitable as the politicisation of women’s professional sport. The challenge to sports administrators in this country is to embrace, rather than fear, what this overlap will bring. 

This crossover is not unique to Aotearoa. The most well-established women’s sports competitions in the world are tightly aligned with social justice issues. At the Fifa Women’s World Cup final in 2019 the crowd celebrated the winners with a chant of “equal pay”. The football world cup was held again last year (right here in Aotearoa) and this time was in the spotlight for the players speaking out against the Visit Saudi’s sponsorship of the competition – Saudi Arabia being a place many of the openly queer players at the tournament would be unsafe travelling to.

Across the Tasman, Australian netball players took a stand against the sponsorship of Hancock Prospecting, objecting to the sport-washing of a mining company whose founder had a history of racist comments. The WNBA has a player base that unashamedly and routinely speaks collectively on issues of race, gender and policing in the United States. As a result, the league has reportedly never been more popular. 

Hurricanes CEO Lee clearly isn’t aware of this pattern in women’s professional sports. He wasn’t aware of much, it seemed last week, but that didn’t stop him doing the rounds with the media before having a sit-down with his players to understand the issue. In Lee’s haste to avoid being seen as political, he politicised things further, setting up an us-and-them divide between the executive and their players that is counter to the franchise’s promise to “unite and excite”. 

If Lee wanted to understand how to respond to the Poua’s haka, he need look no further than their opposition, the Chiefs Manawa. In the moment, the players picked up the challenge that was laid on their whenua, performing their own haka. The franchise then followed their lead, releasing a statement that read: The Chiefs Manawa karanga prior to the haka spoke of the importance of te ao Māori. Te ao Māori principles are integrated in our club’s strategy and an important part of our Chiefs culture. The karanga, haka and waiata are important rituals for our organisation. We believe our players are entitled to their views, and at the Chiefs rugby club we provide an environment where every individual can be themselves by supporting our Chiefs wāhine and tāne to be the best they can be on and off the field.”

Much of the talk in relation to the Hurricanes Poua was of the risk of division and turning fans off from Super Rugby Aupiki. Be honest, how many of you knew the tournament had even started before the Poua kicked things off? 

Most of the people who took issue with their stand were already looking for one as they still resent women taking their rightful place in rugby’s professionalism. These are the people who were loud in their commentary but quiet in their action. Not to worry, they were never the target audience anyway. 

The most successful women’s rugby ticket sales campaign in New Zealand understood this and leaned into the politics of the moment to sell out the Rugby World Cup 2021 final, identifying that “more than half of the adult population now consider gender equity in sport to be an important social cause”. They crafted their campaign accordingly.  

Ruby Tui during the Black Ferns’ opening game of the 2021 Rugby World Cup (Photo: Michael Bradley/AFP via Getty Images)

The breakout star of that tournament was a proud brown queer woman who led the finals crowd in a waiata of celebration. All of this was just Ruby Tui being Ruby Tui. Still, there would be many who would call that expression political.   

Women’s sports are different to men’s sports and so are their fans. There is a place of overlap but there is a larger potential audience hungry for the authenticity of these wāhine athletes. They care less for their team colours than they do their political ones. They want their stories, not just their statistics. They want to connect with the people first, before they start loving their sport. 

The trouble with the current path that Super Rugby Aupiki is walking down is that they have umbrellaed their brands. The women’s team is positioned as a subset of the overarching men’s franchise. This limits their ability to diverge in their approach towards running the two teams. They routinely place their fan bases and their potential sponsors together in an uncomfortable marriage, which then requires a uniformity of message, leading to a blandness unappetising to women’s fans. As a result, fans don’t turn up until the players themselves show them something different. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can embrace the difference and grow as a result. We have many international examples to draw from – examples rooted in reality, not the fantasy of a world where sports and politics don’t mix. 

Keep going!