A number of soccer players refused to wear shirts bearing pro-LGBTQ+ messaging before their Israeli Premier League matches on Saturday, sparking a debate on freedom of speech and inclusivity in sports.
As part of a collaboration between the Israeli Professional Football Leagues (IPFL) and LGBTQ+ youth movement IGY, players were required to take to the pitch wearing white T-shirts with the inscription "we are here and everywhere also in sports" written over a drawing of a heart painted in the colors of the Pride flag before each match of the top-flight's 21st round.
However, some players were not too eager to get on board with the gesture.
Hapoel Be'er Sheva's Adrian Păun was the first to draw criticism when the Romanian winger was seen covering the rainbow-colored heart emblazoned on his shirt during the team photograph ahead of their match against Nes Tziona.
During the game, the club management was sure this was not a deliberate act and planned to issue a statement clarifying the matter after discussing it with the player. The club ultimately did not release a statement after learning from Păun that the move was indeed done on purpose.
Though disappointed, club officials stressed that it was in the player's full right to not take part in the tribute.
"We undertake and will undertake many social activities, also for the benefit of the gay community. A person has the right to act according to the dictates of their conscience," one official said.
Another defiant holdout took place later in the day when nine players of Bnei Sakhnin's starting 11 refused to pose for the team photo wearing the shirts in question ahead of their one-all draw against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
The club from the Arab sector sent a letter to the IPFL explaining the reasoning behind its decision to allow players to opt out of wearing the shirts.
"Out of those same values that grant the right to shape society's identity and life and respect for each individual human being and to respect the sanctity of the individual and their freedom, the management of the Bnei Sakhnin sports club will allow each player to determine for themselves the manner of their participation in the support ceremony for the IGY association which will be held tonight at the league games as announced by the IPFL," the letter read.
"The club's management advocates the values of respect for others and for each individual, while at the same time it will also give full respect and sensitivity to the Arab sector and its values.
The Bnei Sakhnin club, management and players believe that all stakeholders will show understanding toward the club's decision on this matter."
Three Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona also refused to partake before their 3-0 routing by Beiter Jerusalem.
Some outraged online users called to sanction the holdouts, arguing that their refusal to don the shirts was a stark manifestation of intolerance.
This comes weeks after a similar controversy in the United States' National Hockey League (NHL) stirred a heated debate over professional players' right to bow out from LGBTQ+ inclusion initiatives in sports when Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov did not take part in warmups because he refused to wear a Pride-themed jersey, citing his Russian Orthodox faith as the reason for his disinclination to partake in the homage.
“I respect everybody’s choices,” Provorov said after the game. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion. That’s all I’m going to say.”