The last 24 hours has seen an uproar of disgust and objection at the signing of Wellington Rugby Union squad member Losi Filipo. As the perpetrator of heinous physical assaults, Filipo should not have received any special treatment at any point of this journey. Unfortunately, the first fault occurred when he was discharged without conviction, which is a story in itself, and raises many questions.
Rightfully, his contract sat uneasily with many. Men who hit women in cities and suburbs around the country are subject to legal repercussions, so his place in a sport held (rightly or wrongly) on pedestal would have been questionable. When weighing up what his victims have suffered, endured and lost, and what he had to gain from being a professional rugby player, the public outrage was appropriate.
Legally, Wellington Rugby Union had no reason not to offer him a contract. Morally, things are different. In a world where professionalism often overlooks right and wrong, Wellington Rugby Union had a responsibility. Not to their sponsors, or their board, or their fans. They had a responsibility to Filipo. If this was a player they wanted to invest in, they should’ve invested in him. The person. Better people make better rugby players, right?
An 18 year old has many playing years ahead of him. But he’s got even longer to live beyond the sport. In a country which idolises rugby players, where the best are watched closely on and off the field, life for a professional is vastly different. He is not the biggest name in the game, but his simple inclusion in the Wellington squad would bring with it a variety of factors which would complicate his life even further. He doesn’t need the high salary, nor the high profile. As he undertakes restorative measures to get his own life back on track, the media coverage, adulation of young fans and attention from females and accompanying temptations would be distractions. They’ve proved to be even for the most straight-laced of sportspeople. An 18 year old with a record of physical assault shouldn’t be subjected to the fishbowl, the disposable income and attention which comes a rugby contract. Who knows where it could leave him for his life beyond sport.
As much as we side with the victims, of course, it is clear Filipo’s actions that night changed his life too. Sympathy, on my part is low. However in a country where we’ve seen other sportspeople and media personalities regain their spot in the industries they love following similar incidents, Filipo has every opportunity to rebuild himself, if approached the right way, and accompanied with legitimate remorse. The WRU had the opportunity to set him on the right path. They have the resources to ensure Filipo undergoes the support programmes he requires. Without intimate details of the night in question, or him as a person, one can only speculate what that help might be; anger management, alcohol intervention or a mentoring programme. By encouraging and enabling Filipo to undertake these measures before pulling on a jersey, they would show they were serious about many things; helping Filipo correct his path; giving sincerity to his apology and vow to change; showing the community that they don’t stand for thugs, but believe in the ability for people, particularly young people, to overcome poor decisions and make a career for themselves. All of these things would’ve taken time, and time can be a great healer. But by signing him and being willing to expose him to everything that comes with professional sport, they showed that the investment isn’t in a person. It’s in a talent, and they’ve got to use (exploit?) it while they can.
And before you write off the potential for someone to come back from the misdemeanours of youth, look up the stories of Suaia Matangi, Manu Ma’u, and though it’s early days, Russell Packer. It’s not unchartered territory, but for it to happen, everyone needs to recognise there was a mistake. That there is a problem. “Acceptance is the first step” is a well-trodden rhetoric. Giving a troubled a young man a sports contract and public profile, just because the courts say there’s no reason not to, isn’t acknowledging the issue. Invest in more than his talent. Invest in him, invest in society, invest in what your organisation tells the community it believes in – that violence has no place on the sports field or our communities.
I am glad Filipo won’t be playing for Wellington this season. Beyond that? I can’t say for sure how I would feel. But I can hope that he recognises his wrongs, and sets about correcting them. His whole life is ahead of him, and, like the judge said, this shouldn’t define or limit his future. But do the crime, do the time. With a lack of penal time imposed, Filipo’s time needs to be invested in personal development. That is the only way to prove he’s worthy of being reconsidered as professional sportsperson; which he needs to remember is a privilege, not a right.