THE National Rugby League (NRL) has denied suggestions it snubbed last weekend’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras by failing to send any current or recent players to represent the code at the event.

The denial comes as a prominent campaigner for LGBTI inclusion in sport has claimed that, of all the sporting codes, the NRL is proving the most sluggish when it comes to nominating high-profile ambassadors to back the cause.

Last Saturday, the lead float at the Mardi Gras Parade celebrated both Sydney’s successful hosting of 2014’s Bingham Cup – the world’s top gay rugby union tournament – and the signing of the Anti-Homophobia and Inclusion Framework by Australia’s top five sporting codes.

In a letter seen by the Star Observer, and sent to NRL’s chief executive Dave Smith, NSW Sports Minister Stuart Ayres encouraged the league to play an active role in the float.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for a leader in your code to join with other representatives to make a powerful statement about the importance of inclusion in sport,” Ayres wrote.

Sydney Swans players Mike Pyke and Nick Smith from AFL attended the parade, the openly-gay vice captain of Australia’s women’s team Alex Blackwell represented cricket as did all-rounder Ellyse Perry who attended with her fiancé Brumbies player Matt Toouma and Lachlan Mitchell of the Melbourne Rebels while Sydney FC’s Rhyan Grant was soccer’s ambassador.

The NRL, which has nine teams based in Sydney compared to two each for the AFL and soccer, sent Canterbury-Bankstown legend Paul Langmack.

Langmack, who won three premierships for the Bulldogs in the 1980s, hasn’t played professionally since 1999.

AFL, soccer, cricket and union also either ran news stories about their involvement with Mardi Gras or used Facebook and Twitter in the lead-up to the parade to show their support for LGBTI inclusion.

While the NRL posted around 80 tweets or retweets last Saturday, none mentioned Mardi Gras despite Langmack posting at least five tweets on his personal account about his involvement. 

A news story on the NRL website only appeared four days following Mardi Gras – after the Star Observer got in touch with the league – and their only tweet appeared on Monday.

A spokesperson for the NRL said the Parade clashed with the first round of the season meaning current players were unavailable.

The NRL also said Langmack was a worthy representative due to his high profile and conducted interviews with the Daily Telegraph and 2GB about his involvement.

“The NRL remains proud to support the Anti-Homophobia and Inclusion Framework and, since signing up to this initiative last year, has implemented a new Diversity and Inclusion Policy,” the spokesperson said.

In the coming months, the organisers of the Bingham Cup are due to release a progress report on each code’s efforts when it comes to LGBTI inclusion.

Bingham Cup 2014 president Andrew Purchas praised Langmack’s attendance, saying it sent a strong message of support, “particularly to the older league fans”.

However, he said it was “important that we speak to current and future generations of athletes”.

“This is why it was very powerful to have current players from rugby, AFL, soccer and cricket,” Purchas added.

He acknowledged it was the first weekend of the season and they had hoped Thomas Burgess would attend until he was struck down by injury.

Attempts to find any current or recently-retired players to march then proved fruitless which, according to Purchas, seemed to be a trend for the league.

“Despite numerous approaches over the past couple of years to the NRL, various clubs, the players association and players we have been unable to find players willing and/or able commit to being nominated as an ambassadors on the issue of homophobia in sport,” he said.

Purchas also questioned why it took NRL days longer than any other code to send out a tweet “given social media is most effective when contemporaneous with the event”.

Nevertheless, he welcomed NRL’s LGBTI inclusion efforts, noting the Burgess brothers and Greg Inglis attended one-off events to promote the Bingham Cup.

However, he said: “As NSW’s most popular sport the NRL missed out on this fantastic opportunity to further demonstrate its commitment to diversity and inclusion by having both post current and past players participating.”

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