Juressa Lee (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Rarotonga) was just four months into a new job at Greenpeace Aotearoa when New Zealand Rugby announced that it had signed a six-year sponsorship deal with British petrochemical giant INEOS. Here she writes about why the deal seemed so wrong — and why it raises uncomfortable questions for Māori and Pacific players.
The All Blacks are playing Australia tonight, and me and my dad will be watching. In his day, Dad played club rugby and rugby league, and he coached for a bit, too. Because of him, I played rugby briefly at school.
Even though I’m just a spectator these days, I do feel connected to our rugby players. They feel like people I know. They’re so accessible on social media. The women’s sevens team have been hilarious. When they do interviews, for me, it’s like watching your cousins. I feel as if I know these people, I get these people, and they get me.
So my first reaction, when I heard that all of our “Teams in Black” — including the All Blacks, Black Ferns, Māori All Blacks, our men’s and women’s sevens teams, and the New Zealand Under 20 — had done this big deal with INEOS, was a visceral feeling of something being tainted.
It was the feeling that something which I thought belonged to us, and was uniquely ours, had been breached by some foreign body.
For me, it was more than the idea of selling out. It was actually something dirty. And I believe that it wouldn’t have even crossed the minds of the NZ Rugby board members that there are fans who may feel this way too.
The deal means our players will wear the INEOS logo on their shorts and be associated with the brand for six years.
INEOS has a strategy of pursuing high-profile sports partnerships that bear no relation to its core business: a collection of refineries, offshore gasfields, and chemical works.
Our players are being asked to carry water for a brand that is desecrating our environment.
INEOS is an oil company, a chemicals company and a plastics company. No one is unaware that there is a huge plastics waste and micro-plastic problem throughout the South Pacific. NZ Rugby has tried to deflect criticism by saying INEOS has a zero-carbon goal, but that’s just offset-money which will permit the damage they’re doing to continue. It’s meaningless.
While few players have yet publicly acknowledged the deal with INEOS, I’ve thought hard about what some of them, especially our Māori and Pacific players, might be feeling and thinking.
Do they feel forced to compromise themselves somehow? Are they experiencing some internal battle reconciling the joy and pride of playing on the international field with having to wear the dirty mark of a highly polluting sponsor? I send my aroha to our athletes who’ve been affected by this deal.
And I’m curious. When the decisions that affect our players were made, were they at the table? When the deals were made that will associate brands with our players’ names and faces for the next six years, were our players asked? In the process, were their perspectives considered? Was the impact of such a deal thought through? Was an effort made to find out what’s important to the players and what they hoped for their communities, their homes, their planet?
Has it ever crossed the minds of the executive members to use their position and influence to take positive action for Aotearoa and Pacific nations and communities facing climate change?
The whakapapa of my whānau is a journey through Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. From the Whangape Harbour to Rawhiti via Ngawha, down to Tauranga Moana, over to Tupapa and Ngatangiia in Rarotonga, and north again to Tahiti. My tamariki, through their pāpā, also whakapapa to Toi village in Niue.
Our Pacific Islands are extremely vulnerable to climate change, increasingly prone to natural disasters and extreme weather such as droughts. As sea levels rise, access to underground fresh water diminishes, and food sovereignty and food security is threatened.
The Pacific Ocean is also the most polluted ocean with two trillion plastic pieces. Plastic has polluted a food source integral to the Pacific diet — and now we’re eating it.
So as tangata whenua and tangata moana, I have these questions on my mind. What will happen to our islands? How will our people eat? And where will our climate refugees go when they can no longer sustain themselves at home? How will we manage the emotional and mental impacts on our people when they must say goodbye to their homes, forever?
I know I’m not alone in this. Pacific Islanders in Aotearoa, whether born here or not, feel a deep connection and responsibility to their island nations and their families still living the island life. Not a dissimilar feeling for many Māori. We are born kaitiaki.
There are other responsibilities we have as Polynesians, too. A sense of obligation to our communities to do well, to achieve our dreams, despite the odds, as a brown, Māori, Pacific person, in mostly monocultural and Eurocentric spaces. Wearing the black jersey is often the dream for our rugby players, for their whānau and communities, and when it happens, the pride is collective.
When I called out the powers that be at NZ Rugby, I did so because it’s important to me to know that our people can take our whole selves wherever we go.
We don’t leave parts of our identity in the carpark every morning because it’s more palatable for everyone else. We don’t abandon our tūpuna-given kaitiakitanga because it clashes with our sponsorship. We don’t accept some wealthy investor making disparaging remarks about our people because he’s insecure.
NZ Rugby should be doing a lot better at understanding the needs and aspirations of our Māori and Pacific players and all that they bring to the code, to the brand, and to our country. That includes their culture, their families, and everything that’s important to them.
NZ Rugby is putting our tangata whenua and tangata moana in a quandary by asking them to boost the reputation of INEOS with their sporting achievements. This helps INEOS distract from, and greenwash over, how its actions further the climate crisis and plastic pollution of the things that are so fundamental to who we are. Island people. People of the moana.
NZ Rugby needs to see our players as more than try-scorers, front rows, backs, squads and winners. They are parents and children, uri and tūpuna-in-the-making, kaitiaki and community leaders.
When I watch the game tonight, I’ll cheer our players on, knowing they’re there for the love of the game. But I’ll also be thinking that the āhua of rugby could be so much more if we included all the special, unique and complex parts of our players’ indigeneity.
They have their dreams of the jersey but also dreams for so much more — their right to exist as their whole selves in the work that they do.
Juressa Lee (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Rarotonga) is a Greenpeace Aotearoa campaigner who was born in Melbourne, Australia, and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau. She was part of Mana Rākau, an urban tree protection movement born from the Save Canal Road Native Trees campaign, which fought to save a stand of rare, native trees in West Auckland.
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