during the Rugby League World Cup Semi Final match between New Zealand and England at Wembley Stadium on November 23, 2013. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Class matters: why rugby league players don’t receive knighthoods

Despite a mass public campaign, Kevin Sinfield hasn’t received a knighthood this year. It comes as no surprise to rugby league fans

In the final PMQs before the Christmas break, Boris Johnson was urged by a fellow MP to acknowledge former rugby league star Kevin Sinfield’s heroic efforts. Sinfield had just completed seven marathons in seven days, raising funds for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, after his friend and former teammate Rob Burrow was diagnosed with the condition.

He set out with a target of raising a modest £77,000, but interest soon snowballed. Each morning, viewers of BBC Breakfast watched in awe as Sinfield set out in his task in the icy cold Yorkshire conditions. Support came far and wide, from across our cultural divides. In 2020, few people can say they have united figures as diverse as Gary Lineker and Jim Davidson in solidarity. But Sinfield did, and he raised over £2.6 million in the process.

It is little wonder then that Boris Johnson was keen to flex his newfound rugby league credentials. The Prime Minister, drawing from his pre-prepared notes, expressed great “enthusiasm for what Kevin Sinfield has done”.

However, the rare mention of a rugby league player at PMQs prompted a response from the rugby-mad Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle: “It’s Sir Kevin”. Johnson then corrected himself: “Sir Kevin, thank you… I congratulate Sir Kevin on his actions and the government is certainly in full, full support”.

As a follower of the ‘other’ rugby code, Johnson might have assumed that Sinfield had been knighted for his many sporting achievements, after leading the Leeds Rhinos to seven Super League titles, three World Club Challenge wins and two Challenge Cups between 2004 and 2015. But the title is an honorary one, bestowed on him not by the Queen but by the people of rugby league.

A popular figure within the game, his sporting achievements have perhaps been overlooked at a national level. In 2015, he came second in the Sports Personality of the Year following a public vote. Yet, a shocked BBC – who hold the rights to the Challenge Cup and the international matches – was forced to run an article the following day: “He came second in SPOTY but who is Kevin Sinfield?”

When the 2021 honours list was unveiled last night, there was no place for Kevin Sinfield

Now Sinfield’s marathon efforts have pushed him towards an unlikely national treasure status. Since then, calls have grown to make his title an official one. The BBC presenter Dan Walker encapsulated the mood with his tweet: “Just give the man a knighthood.” A 30,000 signature petition followed after its organisers argued that “He has always been a local hero, and now he is most definitely a national hero and it’s time he got recognised for it”. The Yorkshire Evening Post got behind the bid and word even reached Australia, where top commentator Andrew Voss backed the campaign.

For Sinfield, these discussions have been a mere sideshow to the fundraising efforts. When he was asked about his achievements on BBC Breakfast, the presenters accused him of being “all humble” and “rugby league” about it all. It was meant as a compliment. But it might well explain why his “Sir” status remains an honorary one: when the 2021 honours list was unveiled last night, there was no place for Kevin Sinfield.

Rugby league supporters will comfort themselves that the list was compiled before he set out on his task or that nobody within the game got round to filling in a nomination form. Others will speculate that he was offered one and turned it down. And the game actually does have something to cheer this year. Rob Burrow was awarded an MBE for his brilliant efforts in raising the profile of MND.

However, all of this does not excuse the fact that in the game’s 125-year history, not a single player, coach or administrator has been knighted for their services to Britain or the communities they represent. One might conclude that “humble” rugby league players from working-class towns are not worthy of such titles.

Whether athletes should receive knighthoods at all remains a hotly contested debate. In 1926, Sir Francis Eden Lacey became the first person to be knighted for his services to sport following his MCC work. The Order of the British Empire, which includes knighthoods, damehoods, the CBE, OBE and MBE, was created by George V in 1917. Newly released papers show that the King expressed fears about it becoming “common and ridiculous” from the outset.

Fears about the “celebrification” of honours have their origins in Harold Wilson’s decision to award the Beatles their MBE’s in 1965. The decision prompted a backlash as previous winners sent theirs back in protest. Meanwhile, the government was keen to recognise the “great commercial advantage in dollar earnings in this country” due to pop-culture exports across the world.

Why has rugby league has been overlooked in the race to knight Britain’s elite athletes?

Sport has taken an ever more central position in Britain’s national story in recent decades. Successful athletes are now at the front of the queue when honours are handed out. Controversially, every member of the 2003 Rugby World Cup squad and the 2005 Ashes team were awarded MBE’s and OBE’s in the immediate aftermath of their successes. Olympians Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Mo Farah were knighted whilst still in competition. As was Andy Murray, in 2017, when the rower Katherine Grainger, 41, and heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, 30, were also made dames.

Last year, Andrew Strauss and Geoffrey Boycott joined Sir Alastair Cook as the latest figures in a long line of cricketing knights thanks to Theresa May. This week, Boris Johnson is said to have personally intervened to ensure Lewis Hamilton received his award.

All of which raises the question of why rugby league has been overlooked in the race to knight Britain’s elite athletes. In the 1960s, Great Britain captain Eric Ashton became the first league player formally honoured with an MBE. At the same time, contemporaries such as Jack Hobbs and Stanley Matthews received knighthoods.

Other pioneers such as the first black British captain of any national side, Clive Sullivan (MBE) and the first black coach of a major national side, Ellery Hanley (MBE) have been overlooked for the top honour. Sinfield himself was awarded an MBE in 2014, while figures such as Steve Prescott (MBE) and Lizzie Jones (MBE) received awards for their community work.

Due to its history, rugby league is inevitably uncomfortable with titles

Knighthoods remain the preserve of other sports. In 2004, the Labour MP David Hinchliffe – who has arguably been the sport’s greatest champion in Parliament – identified the “disgraceful” discrepancy between the way rugby league and rugby union players had been honoured. Angered by how the Labour Government had ignored the sport, he used a series of parliamentary questions, to establish that league had received only one honour in five years, compared with 52 for rugby union.

In terms of knighthoods, the former England captain Bill Beaumont is the most recent to obtain the honour, joining luminaries such as Sir Gareth Edwards, Sir Ian McGeechan and Sir Clive Woodward. All of them now play an active role in promoting their game on the world stage.

Few people within rugby league circles believe this honours gap is a problem. There are times when the sport actively revels in it. By its geographical location and history as the industrial working classes’ pastime, rugby league is inevitably uncomfortable with titles. Honours, it is argued, are earned on the pitch. Respect comes from fellow professionals, not the ruling elites or administrators in Whitehall.

In the 1960s, when league had the finances to recruit top players from union, it was always more comfortable going to working-class South Wales than England’s public schools. In the documentary The Game That Got Away, one administrator admitted that they wouldn’t speak to “those who went to Oxford and Cambridge” because “there is no chance of getting these boys”. The sense that rugby league is a sport for the proletariat has never really gone away.

In contrast, rugby union has actively embraced rugby league’s working-class ethos as it turned professional at the end of the century. It has tempted the best coaching minds from up north – from Phil Larder and Joe Lydon to Ellery Hanley, Shaun Edwards, and Andy Farrell – to add a touch of league grit to their defensive games. Stuart Lancaster tried to do the same on the pitch by bringing Sam Burgess into his leadership team in 2014.

Current England RUFC head coach Eddie Jones believes that class matters. In the past, he considers union to have been restricted by players only drawn from “privileged areas in the south of England, where the houses are palatial and the gardens are massive”. The influx of people – such as his captain, Owen Farrell – from the “rougher northern England” could not be more different. “People are friendlier and more open” Jones observed. “We are stronger when my squad contains a mix of these different English cultures.”

Change may also be afoot in rugby league. The buzzword surrounding discussions of the game’s future is private equity, with administrators rumoured to be offering up a stake in the game to investors in exchange for an immediate cash injection. Rugby union has received significant backing from the equity fund CVC in recent years. There is hope that a similar deal can secure league’s short and long-term future.

Rugby league can reach people in some of our country’s most deprived and forgotten parts

In the fierce battle to secure new sponsorship and broadcast deals, how important will it be to have ambassadors with titles – Sir Martin Offiah, Sir Ellery Hanley, Sir Jason Robinson and Sir Kevin Sinfield – to help expand the sport beyond its current heartlands? Because although rugby league people like to think titles don’t matter, they evidently do. It’s why business and political leaders around the globe yearn for them. And just because they have been devalued by the actions of some – think Sir Fred Goodwin and Sir Phillip Green – it doesn’t mean rugby league cannot positively utilise them.

Most importantly, the case for honours should not be restricted to their impact on the individuals involved or the sports they play. This is about the places that rugby league people come from. It takes a community to produce a top sporting athlete, from the coaches at the grassroots level running the amateur game to the parents who wash the kits of an evening. League players are schooled on the community fields of Workington, Featherstone and Oldham, not Eton, Harrow and Westminster. Any honours should be seen as a tribute to the towns as well as the elite players.

As the recent government loan granted to the sport alluded to, rugby league can reach people in some of our country’s most deprived and forgotten parts. The community work – whether in organising food banks, making welfare checks – as players have done throughout the Covid-19 crisis, is done without fuss or fanfare.

Proper recognition of rugby league people would not only show that there is a place for the values of the so-called “left-behind” towns in our national celebrations, but it might just help modernise the honours system too.

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