Image Credit: Gerard Barrau
Increasingly, knighthoods from the royal family are being used to recognise sportspeople and their contribution to our country. Only last week, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton was knighted for his services to British motorsport. The likes of Sir Mo Farrah and Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill have also been given this honour in the past ten years.
However, one sport continues to miss out. Despite being around for 125 years, not a single rugby league coach, player or administrator has ever been knighted. Rugby league is often forgotten about in upper-class circles, where rugby union is favoured. Support for rugby league is mainly confined to the northern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire, and more specifically, to working class towns like Salford, Wigan and St Helens, a far cry from the fields of Eton and Harrow where rugby union is played.
Have rugby league players just not done enough to deserve a knighthood? I would argue the opposite: if anyone deserves this honour, it is retired rugby league player and former England captain, Kevin Sinfield.
Sinfield is one of the most successful rugby league players of all time. He holds the record for highest points scorer at the Leeds Rhinos, where he spent his entire professional career. He captained Leeds to win the Superleague seven times and the Challenge Cup twice. Additionally, he has 26 caps for England and 14 for Great Britain, and even played rugby union for 18 months at Yorkshire Carnegie, Leeds’ sister club.
However, it is not just Sinfield’s sporting prowess that he should be recognised for. In December 2019, Rob Burrow, Sinfield’s good friend and teammate, revealed that he had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. At just thirty seven years old, Burrow was given two years to live. Rather than sit around while his friend suffered, Sinfield decided to take action. In December 2020, he announced that he was running seven marathons in seven days in order to raise £77,777 to donate to Burrow and Motor Neurone Disease charities. By the time he set off on December 1st of last year, he had exceeded his target, and after he finished the challenge, Sinfield had raised an enormous £2.7 million.
Motor Neurone Disease is an incurable degenerative disease. There is no known reason why someone would develop the disease, but there is some evidence to suggest that trauma from head injuries - such as those sustained by rugby players - could make people more prone to developing MND. The money raised by Sinfield will be used to support those living with the disease, as well as funding research into its causes and treatment.
Burrow has now outlived the two years doctors initially gave him. On the 13th of December he tweeted, “there is no way this horrible disease is going to beat me. 2 years on I'm more focused than ever.” Despite being confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, Burrow has shown amazing spirit in the face of this horrific illness, and has been awarded an MBE for his efforts in raising awareness of MND.
Sinfield has also continued to fight MND. In October 2021, he completed the Extra Mile Challenge, which involves running 101 miles in less than 24 hours. That is a huge 163 kilometres - or just under four marathons - in less than a day. Sinfield’s run from Leicester Tigers’ stadium to Leeds’ Headingley stadium raised over £2million. But even this was not enough for Sinfield - he has vowed that he will not stop raising both money and awareness until a cure for this degenerative illness is found.
Undoubtedly, Sinfield is deserving of the highest honour in this country. We must ask, then, whether there is a class element to why no rugby league player has received a knighthood. Can institutions like the monarchy, and traditions like knighthood, incorporate working class people? Or do they only exist to serve those who are already wealthy? If they cannot include working class people, we as a society should no longer value them. But as long as the honour system does exist, it is clear that Kevin Sinfield should be recognised by it. Recognising Sinfield, who comes from Oldham, Greater Manchester and who spent years living and playing in Leeds, not only recognises him as an individual, but also recognises these communities.
In the rugby league community, he has already been dubbed ‘Sir Kev’. When talk of his knighthood spread, Sinfield responded that it was “nice” but “we’re a team”. Maybe a knighthood seems incongruous with Sinfield’s ethos: he has been praised for his humbleness and modesty throughout his charity fundraising. It may also seem to contradict the spirit of rugby league as a working class sport. Either way, it is clear that Sinfield does not put himself through these incredible mental and physical challenges to gain recognition, but rather out of genuine care for his friend and a desire to find a cure to MND.
Whether he is ever nominated for a knighthood or not, Kevin Sinfield has earnt his honour both on and off the pitch, making not only rugby league fans, but the entire country, proud.