Kevin Sinfield (Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport/CameraSport via Getty Images)

The people’s captain

What our politics can learn from Kevin Sinfield

Artillery Row Books

It was late 2005, and the Leeds Rhinos captain Kevin Sinfield was sitting down with sports writer Donald McRae for a feature in the Guardian. In-depth newspaper profiles of players are an extreme rarity in rugby league circles, but Sinfield was seen as a unique case. A year earlier he had broken Leeds’ 32 year wait for a league title in dramatic fashion. Over the course of the interview, the pair reflected on how far he had come. He admitted that he was simply fortunate to be a professional athlete. “Compared to most people in the real world, I’m lucky enough to make a living by playing a game.”

The Extra Mile, Kevin Sinfield (Penguin, £20)

At the same time, rugby league players are amongst the lowest paid of the “elite” athletes in Britain. Despite being regarded as some of the fittest, toughest and most skilful sports players in the country, the financial rewards are lightyears away from the footballers, cricket stars and rugby union internationals. You can reach the very top and have little prospect of becoming a millionaire, signing a sponsorship deal with Nike or Adidas, or becoming a national celebrity.

When McRae probed him on life in rugby league, though, there was something else that made Sinfield slightly envious of others. He admired the way that athletes could use their position in society to be a force for good. He had been inspired by the Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho’s trip to Israel in 2005. The blues boss travelled to the country as part of a peace initiative to promote football between children across the divide. “He spoke about love and the importance of family and that was him spreading hope in a depressing situation,” Sinfield said. “I think sporting icons like him can do a lot to lift up people.”

Sinfield’s belief that sport can be a force for good is central to the story he tells in his new autobiography The Extra Mile (Penguin: £20:00). Sinfield traces his beliefs back to his parents, who were rooted in the trade union movement in the north of England in the 1970s and 1980s. He describes a childhood in a small terraced house in Oldham that was decked out in Che Guevara posters, where his parents were engaged in the great battles of the age.

He was taken on the picket lines of the miners’ strike to Greenham Common and on anti-apartheid demonstrations where he would often get lost amongst the sea of protesters. His mother Beryl was on strike for almost two years in the early 1990s, over a pay dispute which led to her being replaced by agency staff. The upbringing shaped the way he looked at the world and what influence his position as a rugby league player could potentially have.

Back in 2005, he looked at Jose Mourinho and wondered why Britain didn’t have a political class with as much charisma. “He gives you the feeling he could make people see sense,” said Sinfield. “I can’t think of one current politician who can do that.” Whilst Sinfield may have wished to have as great an impact, the parochial nature of rugby league in Britain meant that his influence would be restricted to the community work that all clubs do.

Viewers of BBC Breakfast watched in awe as Sinfield set out in the icy Yorkshire conditions

League is a sport that prides itself on not having out of touch “celebrities” in its ranks. As I outline in my forthcoming book Rugby League in Thatcher’s Britain, for much of the 20th century rugby league players did the same jobs, drank in the same pubs, lived on the same streets, and sent their kids to the same schools as the supporters who idolised them on the terraces each week. In the film adaptation of This Sporting Life, the kitchen-sink drama of a miner who becomes a rugby league star, the central character explains the humble nature of the league code. “We don’t have stars in this game, Mrs Weaver, that’s soccer.” “Well, what do you have then?” she replies. “People like me.”

Kevin Sinfield was about as famous as it was possible to be for a rugby league player in the 21st century. In a much celebrated professional rugby league career spanning 18 years, he made more than 500 appearances for Leeds Rhinos, won seven league titles and two Challenge Cups. He captained his country and was the first rugby league player to be considered for the Sports Personality of the Year award. Because rugby league players don’t receive knighthoods, the supporters dubbed him “Sir Kevin” instead.

Sinfield retired from playing in 2016 to begin the next stage of his life as a rugby league administrator. Had he done so, he would have been remembered in the pubs and clubs of Yorkshire and Lancashire as one of the great players of the professional era. Tragic circumstances would change everything, though, catapulting him into the national consciousness. Like most people in the country Sinfield knew little about what motor neurone disease (MND) was before his former team-mate Rob Burrow was diagnosed with the condition. He immediately decided that he needed to do something to help. Why? “Because I was his captain,” he writes in the book. “Because I was his boss at the time.”

Perhaps it was his rugby league background or his humble nature, but Sinfield’s aim for Rob Burrow was small. He wanted to raise some money for the Burrow family, “to make sure they were safe, supported” so that Rob could enjoy his time with his family without worrying about money. Burrow was the number 7 for Leeds, so an idea was hatched to run 7 marathons in 7 days to raise £77,777.

Each morning, viewers of BBC Breakfast watched in awe as Sinfield set out on his task in the icy Yorkshire conditions. Support came far and wide, from across our cultural divides. In 2020, few people could say they united figures as diverse as Gary Lineker, Piers Morgan, Prince Harry and Jim Davidson in solidarity. Sinfield did, and he raised over £2.6 million in the process. In the intervening years he has become the definition of a “national treasure” — a man both compelling and inspirational.

When Rob Burrow wrote his own best-selling autobiography a few years ago, it was clear that he was embracing the battle against MND with the same positive spirit that he entered a rugby league pitch. In the book, Burrow explained how individuals have a choice. We can turn to social media and the newspapers and soak everything up that’s bad about the world “whilst bitching or moaning” about the state of things — or we can decide to “block it all off and do stuff that makes you content”.

In a world where the manufactured outrage of the columnist and the politician is king, Burrow chooses not to be bitter but to see the positives in society. It is clear from reading the Extra Mile that Sinfield has the same outlook on life. As a child, he was greatly inspired by the Wigan and Leeds legend Ellery Hanley, a man who he claims is “the ultimate rugby star”. Sinfield admired the way that he carried himself and earned the respect of his teammates through leading by example. Under the microscope of public scrutiny, he has inspired the public with his actions rather than words.

Sinfield has shown people how you can support your mate in a time of need

Central to Sinfield’s leadership qualities is an honesty that resonates throughout his autobiography. He maintains that he is nothing special but was lucky to be given a leadership role at a young age when it could easily have gone to someone else. “My attributes weren’t great as a player,” he writes. “But commitment, determination and perseverance were in my make-up.”

His honesty leads to some uncomfortable moments when he describes his inner thoughts as MND took hold of Burrow. “It’s important to face and understand what MND is.” He admits that the condition, the twitching, is “crazy” to watch. Each visit he makes, he says, stays with him a lot. “It’s human nature sometimes for people to find reasons not to visit, to avoid the profound upset you feel when you leave.” Neither does Sinfield sugar-coat the realities of the pain that he put himself through. He recounts how after one marathon he was too weak to put on his clothes and was pushed naked by his wife Jayne up the stairs, step by step.

Even now, however, after all that he has achieved for MND (raising over £7m and rising), he refuses to take any personal credit. In the Extra Mile, written masterfully with former Chief Sports Writer at the Daily Telegraph Paul Hayward, he traces his leadership style back to his socialist upbringing. “The feeling of us all being in it together will have shaped my sense of what captaincy or leadership was about.”

As his profile has grown, with world leaders falling over themselves to praise his individual courage, he remains rooted in the realities of the cause he is fighting for. The book reveals that after each marathon, he would hold a Zoom call with someone from the MND community. “They weren’t set up as motivational tools for us,” he writes. “But there could be no sharper spur to get up the next morning.” He created the situation himself but thrived under the pressure. “I knew I was carrying all these responsibilities,” he recalls.

Sinfield may be eager to underplay his role in changing the debate around MND, but he has made people wake up to the impact of the illness. In 2020 Boris Johnson praised “Sir Kevin” in the House of Commons, and his government announced that it would put at least £50m over five years into finding a cure. However, when the MND Association said none of the money had been so far released to researchers, Sinfield helped lobby them to move faster. Last December they agreed to “cut red tape” to speed up research. It’s difficult to imagine them doing so without the mass campaign Sinfield has mobilised over the past few years.

At a time when the public is increasingly disillusioned with our institutions and our politicians, Sinfield has emerged as “the people’s captain” by remaining humble, honest and down to earth. Even last week, as he inspired thousands of people to run in the Burrow marathon in Leeds, he refused to make the event about himself. “Today there are so many people here because they think so much of Rob, or they want to do their own bit for a friend or a family member who’s going through some rough times. Together we get to fight, shoulder to shoulder,” he said.

As a player Sinfield may not have had the national profile to turn his values into the change he wanted to see around society. Like all good leaders, he stepped into the breach when tragic circumstances demanded it. He has tapped into a much-needed desire for authenticity, compassion and comradeship in public life.

More importantly perhaps, in a world where men feel uncomfortable showing emotion for each other, Sinfield has shown people how you can support your mate in a time of need. As Matthew Seyd argued in his Sunday Times column recently, there is a growing need for a different kind of politics that puts transparency, humbleness and humility at the centre of decision making in our country. The Extra Mile shows us how another type of leadership is possible. We could all benefit from being a little bit more like Kevin.

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