When football is an act of worship

How the NRL built a culture where players are open about their faith

It’s not a beat-up – there really are more stories about Christian NRL players in the news these days. But don’t be too quick to declare that a supernatural revival is sweeping through the National Rugby League. The real story might be less dramatic, but it’s no less inspiring.

That’s because behind the scenes of the NRL, there’s a team of players, chaplains, local church pastors and NRL Wellbeing Officers who have faithfully worked together for almost a decade to create a culture where it’s cool to be Christian.

Thirty years ago, news articles about NRL players praying on the field were rarer than hen’s teeth, so to to speak. Apparently an NRL player’s Christian faith just wasn’t newsworthy back then. For better or for worse, that’s no longer the case.

“They are confident in their faith and don’t feel like they have to hide it away now.” – George Dansey

The past few years have given us headlines that have left Christians alternately encouraged (NRL clubs embracing religion on and off the field), amused (Parramatta Eels prop Tim Mannah is a Christian, but it doesn’t mean he is soft), and cringing (NRL: Heaven knows what Hayne is doing).

But with a recent headline that declared In rugby league, the team that prays together stays together, it’s clear the rise of Christianity in the NRL has not gone unnoticed. So, what has changed?

Parramatta Eels Club’s Christian chaplain George Dansey suspects there have always been plenty of Christians in the NRL but their voices have become louder in recent years.

“They are confident in their faith and don’t feel like they have to hide it away now,” he says.

George credits NRL management for the change, saying they’ve developed a culture characterised by understanding and respect for the players’ beliefs and heritage.

“Coaching staff understand and embrace what used to be misunderstood,” he explains.

“We’d have a situation where a coach was taking a Polynesian player through a video analysis and the kid would be looking down rather than looking the coach in the eye – a mark of respect in Polynesian culture – and the coaches didn’t understand it.”

Now there’s greater understanding, says George, and players feel confident being themselves both on and off the field.

“Every player will reach a point where they reflect on things bigger than themselves.”– Paul Heptonstall

Paul Heptonstall is the man employed by the NRL who’s responsible for the culture George refers to. He’s been the NRL’s Wellbeing and Education Manager for the past ten years – a period during which the number of “Pacifika players” (those from Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia) has doubled to represent 40 per cent of players.

As the player group has changed, so too has the NRL’s approach to culture and faith.

“We want Pacifika players to be comfortable and proud of their culture,” Paul says.

“They’re more collective, more community as a group. Making their family proud and sending money home are often bigger priorities for them.”

Paul says the current NRL player group is “a great blend of a wide range of people” with players from backgrounds that range from violent and alcoholic homes, to church-attending families, to private school privilege. In the face of such diversity, building a culture of acceptance and support for players has become a vital component of keeping the league strong.

That’s where Paul’s team of Wellbeing Officers come in. He oversees a total of 65 Wellbeing Officers – all funded by the NRL – with two allocated to each club.

“If young people are anchored to their values, more times than not, they will make the right decision.” – Paul Heptonstall

At each club, one Wellbeing Officer focuses on career development, providing player education and employment support to assist players transitioning to work after football, and the other focuses on player wellbeing more broadly.

Beginning as a player for the North Sydney Bears, Paul spent eight years at the North Queensland Cowboys in Rugby League development, before working eight years at Wests Tigers, under Wayne Pierce – who “championed wellbeing from the beginning” – as the NRL’s first full-time Wellbeing Officer. Paul’s experience in those years developed a genuine passion for the wellbeing of players, including their spirituality.

“Wellbeing staff look at eight areas of a player’s life: physical, psychological, cultural, career planning, financial, community, relationships and spirituality,” Paul explains.

“We recognise that spirituality is important. Every player will reach a point where they reflect on things bigger than themselves.”

Paul’s team of Wellbeing Officers are trained by Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Buddhist, Muslim and even atheist representatives to understand and respect players’ various beliefs.

“What we do is help players be comfortable within their own skin and values – proud of their upbringing and beliefs, whether that be the colour of their skin, their sexuality or their faith.”

Paul describes himself as “a Christian, but not one of those avid church-going ones.” Raised in the Church of England, he has one brother who’s a pastor, another who’s a Buddhist, and his wife is Catholic. Yet his respect for all types of belief is evident, as he talks about taking a group of Mormon players out for dinner recently;

“This is not an evangelistic thing. It’s about being ethical. Allowing people to be themselves.” – Paul Heptonstall

“The message I wanted them to walk away with was: ‘The game is proud of you. Be bold and open about your beliefs.’”

There’s no place for judgment in his job, Paul reasons; instead he strives for trust, empathy and confidentiality.

But does his inclusive approach receive any resistance?

“Look, there’s pockets. That’s why you’ve got to be sensitive. This is not an evangelistic thing. It’s about being ethical. Allowing people to be themselves. If you really respect yourself and others, you also respect others’s views.”

Although, in Paul’s words “there will always be knockers,” he’s convinced that when players are more connected to their values and firm about what they believe is right and wrong, they’ll have greater purpose and drive, and will ultimately make stronger decisions.

He’s also realistic – a refreshing change from the frequent lambasting of players who fail to achieve the “role model” standards thrust upon them as public figures.

“When it comes to young people making decisions, everyone makes mistakes. But if young people are anchored to their values, more times than not, they will make the right decision.”

Players also have chaplains for support when facing challenges. George Dansey has been the Parramatta Eels’ club chaplain since 2011 – a job he loves. He’s an understated kind of guy, who describes the specifics of his job as “just part of being a shepherd and following the True Shepherd, Jesus”.

After several years with the club, George offers pastoral support to everyone involved the club, not just players but the grounds manager, volunteers, office staff, event staff – all of whom call him “Rev”. Recently he prayed for a 65-year-old man who had volunteered for the club for 40 years before he underwent some medical scans.

“Coaches can only do so much on the field and in training – the welfare officer and the chaplain can help with what’s happening off the field,” he explains.

When a player is doing well, George says, he tends to just monitor them. But when they’re facing a crisis, such as losing their contract, moving on from a club, dealing with a relationship breakdown, facing injury, not being selected, or financial hardship, George is present.

So, what does “being present” look like? Mostly being a good listener, George says. It also involves late nights or taking a player to a new space for a proverbial breath of fresh air, and offering to pray for them in a way that “takes the awkwardness out of it.”

“I remember one past player who told me that he felt like, at church, he was treated just like any ordinary guy.” – George Dansey

George wasn’t always so confident in the job, referring to his first task as club chaplain as a “baptism of fire”. A new pastor whose pastoral experience consisted of running a home Bible-study group, George was called by the Coach on his first Saturday in the job. He asked George to come in to address the full squad of players and inform them of the death of a key staff member.

The formal setting wasn’t an ideal way to meet the players, but George says he “kept it simple” and told the team that there were “no easy answers” and this was a time for everyone to “unite as a family.” He opened up the floor to give people a chance to share their memories and prayed to close.

George is sponsored in a sports chaplaincy position by Hillsong Church, where Senior Pastor Brian Houston is himself an NRL fan, and a passionate Eels supporter.

Brian describes George as “a natural” and says that appointing him was “a great first step” for the church, which has gone on to become a strong supporter of sports chaplaincy. Now, four other Hillsongers also partner with Sports Chaplaincy Australia as volunteer chaplains for NRL clubs, and others are involved in different sports, including the Australian Commonwealth Games team.

George says church pastors can “massively impact” players by creating a space in a church community where they can “leave their profile at the door.”

“I remember one past player who told me that he felt like, at church, he was treated just like any ordinary guy. He said that Brian treated him “like a friend, not a fan.” This, George believes, is crucial because “their lives are more important than their profile”.

“They need a place where everyone doesn’t talk to them about football all the time and where people don’t treat them as celebrities.” – David Simmons

As Assistant Minister at Emu Plains Anglican Church, Second Grade Assistant Coach at the Penrith Panthers, and a former NRL player, David Simmons also believes players need a local church family where they can gather with other Christians and simply be seen as “a brother in Christ”.

While it can be difficult for players to stay connected to their church community because of their playing schedule interrupting service attendance, he says it’s still a necessary part of their discipleship.

“They need a place where everyone doesn’t talk to them about football all the time and where people don’t treat them as celebrities,” he explains, saying it helps them avoid “thinking they are more special than they are.”

David was just 18 years old and brand new to the Cronulla Sharks in 2002, the year that Jason Stevens became national news by declaring he was not only a Christian but a virgin who was waiting until he was married to have sex.

David points to Jason’s bold stand as “a turning point in the game,” describing him as someone who was “unfazed by critics” and “faithful to what God had called him to do”.

“As a young Christian and new to the NRL, I was a bit nervous about how I’d fit in. Jason gave me a lot of confidence to not be ashamed of my faith,” he recalls.

“Rugby league is part of my worship,” Kevin Naiqama.

David thinks Jason’s courage, NRL Wellbeing Officers, and the increased numbers of Pacifika players in the league have all played significant roles in increasing the visibility of Christian NRL players. Yet he also credits all those players who have followed Jason’s lead by being open about their faith in recent years with providing “leadership, a rallying point, and a voice as a group” that has encouraged other Christian players.

He’s talking about players such as Wests Tigers player and Captain of the Fijian World Cup team, Kevin Naiqama. Kevin was one of the group of Wests Tigers and Parramatta Eels players who first prayed together on the field following their Easter Monday match in 2016.

At that time, Kevin was 27 years old. He was in his second year at the Tigers and says he “had reached that age where you have to make a decision” because “you can’t live with one foot in the world and one foot in Christianity.” He’d been asking God in prayer to help him be bold and unapologetic in his faith.

The day before the match, Easter Sunday, Kevin had attended Hillsong’s Hills Campus, sitting with other NRL players. One of them, a Parramatta player, had made a decision to accept Christ as his Saviour at the close of the service. The next day, many of the group met again as opponents on the football field, and spontaneously gathered together to pray at the close of the match.

“It was Easter. It’s the reason that we’re all Christians, that Jesus died on a cross for us and was raised from the dead. We wanted to honour him,” Kevin explains.

He thinks it’s “amazing to see other players being bold” and praying after their matches now too, but brushes off affirmations for his courage, instead pointing to players who went before him, such as his personal role models, Tim Mannah and Joseph Paulo.

Although Kevin is hopeful that he might encourage other players to be bold in their faith, his real focus is honouring God with the talents and gifts he’s blessed him with.

“Rugby league is part of my worship,” he says succinctly.

Playing footy as an act of worship isn’t a concept that always made sense to Kevin. He admits he “used to think worship was just about singing praise and worship and what you did in church.”

Over time, though, Kevin reached a different understanding about worship that he says came to him “by grace, revealed to me through the Holy Spirit”.

Now, he’s convinced that using the gifts and talents God has given him to play the game he loves is indeed an act of worship, and one which makes his purpose clear:

“I just want to bring glory and honour to God”.

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