Sonny Bill Williams: Conscientious Objector to Sponsor

Super Rugby Rd 7 - Highlanders v Blues
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In an unprecedented move in New Zealand professional sport, Sonny Bill Williams is the newest Conscientious Objector to put his ideals ahead of a major rugby sponsor.

A public statement was made by the hugely talented rugby player during a Super Rugby match on Saturday night. Returning from a long absence due to injury, Sonny Bill (SBW) made a calculated effort to cover-up the sponsors name on the neckline of his jersey – see main picture.

It was clearly confusing to fans, observers and unannounced to his Blues management, an ambitious ploy by the colourful figure to exploit to maximum affect, a personal conflict he had with the named sponsor BNZ. While much of the focus would normally be on another Blues local derby loss [26-20] yet the attention is firmly on SBW and his objection to one of the sponsors of the Blues franchise.

SBW: Conscientious Objector to Sponsor

His is one of many public statements by sports people over the long history of organized sport. More so in the professional sports era, with the associations made by sponsorship’s and branding. A factor of commercial interests, the sponsors provide income and advertising revenue which mainly go into operations and player remuneration.

Today, the clothing [kit] worn by players is covered in logos. In fact, the Blues kit has seven individual sponsors across it–not including manufacturer Adidas–yet Sonny Bill has objected to the one nearest to his face, and his actions were sharply in the focus of every camera lens on Saturday night.

The way SBW approached the issue seems to have many variables, but the use of medical tape was premeditated and specific to the BNZ (Bank of New Zealand) logo. It was not disguised, and soon created a conversation post-game and on social media. The player himself reacted to the high level of interest, with this tweet;

The player was then confirmed to have made his conscientious objection to New Zealand Rugby. And while few would place Sonny Bill on the same plane as others who have objected, he will ultimately be compared with others. In that vein, he holds similar currency to one of sports most loved characters;

Greatest all time–Muhammad Ali

7th August 1966: American boxer Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, leaves the Cumberland Hotel for the USA after defeating Brian London. (Photo by Clive Limpkin/Express/Getty Images)

The american boxer was sports most vocal conscientious objector. From the Louisville, Kentucky amateur scene, the young Cassius Clay earned an Olympic Gold medal. He then made an impressive professional boxing breakthrough. Crowned the World Championship at the age of 22, he was brash and could back-up his talent–similar in a way to Sonny Bill.

The two young athletes also made leaps of faith: in 1964, Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam, and was influenced by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. This transformation into Muhammad Ali was a sensation. It was soon followed by his refusal to be inducted into the Army. He waged a campaign as a conscientious objector. It alienated the boxer from the establishment, who stripped Ali of his title, banning him for a good part of his career.

And while the similarities between the two will stretch across religious beliefs, Ali was always sincere. His Charisma was his best attribute, while in the last three years SBW has become more introverted. His change from being an enigma to becoming a family man gained him some fans.

Public Figures Use Position to Make Conscientious Objections

Individuals have periodically waged campaigns for their rights or over objections that they might have with government or policy. This has ranged from Civil Rights to Equal Pay, Amnesty International or Greenpeace. Some have claimed their persona has been abused or exploited by management. That maybe in associations that they were not a party too–or in this case, sponsorship’s which are objectionable to the individual.

The Muslim faith has strict doctrine, is born out of ideals and values far removed from the 21st century that most of us enjoy. Traditional beliefs extend to followers personal and professional life. This is where the internal conflict for Sonny Bill has now become a public statement. It may never have surfaced before, but for some reason it is a primary concern today.

Rugby balls lined up on the pitch prior to a South Africa Springboks training session at Clearwater Resort Fields (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

What does he object to? Many observers have summarized that it relates to his Muslim faith, which is opposed to gathering interest on fees on loans. So his objection comes under his NZ Rugby (Blues/All Blacks) contract which states he can object to promoting finance, alcohol, tobacco, gambling companies and banks [he may have chosen the first or last item, this is still undefined]. BNZ maybe the affected party, but Investec are also a major sponsor of key competitions that the Blues/All Blacks compete in.

How Can a Single Sponsorship Conflict Create Such Headlines?

Some have said that in years past, SBW was a ‘walking headline’. Especially true when he was in Sydney, but less so since his marriage and the birth of his children–that was until his very public action. From Sunday until today, it has attracted major attention; overshadowing the result and only shaded by the future layout of Super Rugby.

If the action was an innocent attempt at reducing his exposure to a religious crisis-of-conscience SBW personally felt; it has become a media cauldron. Not since he switched from rugby league to rugby union, has the media buzzed over his every move. Some might assume that the interest is due to the ramifications of an unforeseen action.

NZ Rugby CEO Steve Tew (L) and Khoder Nasser (R) speak following a press conference  on June 1, 2016. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Last Word On Rugby see more underlying facts to the actions taken though. And Sonny Bill Williams management may be more involved than many have presumed. While Khoder Nassar (see above image) has taken a low profile in the years since SBW returned to Super Rugby, but he is still a key figure. When SBW was fronting the press conference in 2016 when re-signing with NZ Rugby, Nassar will have been consulting on every aspect of his clients contract.

The best assumption is that, with the security of contractual clauses in hand, acording to new reports SBW informed NZ Rugby late last year that he would make a case to be a Conscientious Objector. And in his actions last weekend, he and Nasser are using the public exposure to further their chances of gaining more bargaining ground. Classic negotiating practice (you might say), but played out with a religious/ethical morality as it’s backdrop, and in front of the rugby public.

What Will Sonny Bill Gain From His Objection?

The difficulty here is, will SBW be a test-case? If given special dispensation to not wear a jersey with that sponsors name, will it empower others to strike? The first ever instance in NZ rugby, but where does it end? So the administrators must tread carefully. The Blues will have the interests of their sponsor/commercial partners to respect, as much as their consideration for the Conscientious Objector [Sonny Bill] and his rights. Even at the expense of genuine interest in the teams progress, it takes away from the upcoming game with the Hurricanes Saturday.

Being such a powerful figure, SBW may likely be given special treatment. Whether he suffers collateral damage in his contract payments; respecting the lost revenue and public relations degradation, is in question. Unlike Muhammad Ali, or even figures in NZ sport such as Michael Jones–who would not play a test on a Sunday, due to his faith–SBW may still be seen as acting out of self interest. Even the most conscientious objector can still be vilified for acting outside the best interests of his employer.

Public opinion will count too, but for now the discussions between the Blues, NZ Rugby and representatives of Sonny Bill Williams continue.

“Main photo credit”