Hello and welcome to Against Rugby, a regular feature of this blog in which I will attempt to offer cogent reasons why Rugby is a Bad Thing. Obviously this is an unpopular standpoint, and I have to make some things clear right from the outset.
1) If you like rugby, that’s fine. But this is not for you. There are people in New Zealand, believe it or not, who dislike rugby. And they are made to feel alone, and wrong. This one tiny segment of this one mostly-unread blog is intended to let these people know that they are not alone; and to offer reasons why they might not be wrong. That is okay, whether you think it’s okay or not.
2) If you like rugby, that’s fine. But this is not for you. You can look outside, or inside, anywhere - at any billboard, television, or website, and see your passion confirmed. People who dislike rugby in New Zealand have far fewer places to turn to see a point of view they recognise. This is one of those very few places, and that is okay, whether you think it’s okay or not.
3) If you like rugby, that’s fine. But this is not for you. I am perfectly aware that I’ll never convince anyone who likes rugby not to like rugby. You should be aware that you will never convince me to like it. That is okay, whether you think it’s okay or not.
4) If you like rugby, that’s fine. But this is not for you, and your comments are not sought. If you comment in favour of rugby, I’m going to delete it. It’s my blog, and deleting comments is okay, whether you think it’s okay or not.
Against Rugby: Special Chiefs Edition
Before I get started, a disclaimer: sexism is a real thing, that happens everywhere, and not just in Rugby. Sexual assault is a real problem, and its survivors are treated badly everywhere, and not just in Rugby circles. These problems didn’t start with Rugby and if Rugby ends tomorrow they won’t go away. I like to be puerile as much as the next manchild, but it would be beyond even my capacity for hyperbole to suggest that Rugby causes all of society’s evils.
It’s interesting to watch how Rugby interacts with society’s evils though.
As the closest thing this country has to a state religion, Rugby and its revered practitioners are in a unique position to influence public opinion. But a flick back through Rugby’s past flirtations with racism, violence, homophobia, and sexual assault finds the game standing firmly on the wrong side of history, every time.
Which is why the “Come on guys, we’re better than this” tone of much of the mainstream media response to the Chiefs’ sexual assault scandal rings so hollow. Rugby is not better than this. Rugby is this. Rugby is where boys will be boys, and gay people will be abused, and women will be assaulted. And if you don’t like it, that is because you and your PC mates are destroying Our Country, where whacking your kids and then leaving them in your car while you get pissed with The Boys is the only way to stop us turning into a society of “Male Mothers”. (Click the link. It’s actually what he says.)
In previous articles linking Rugby with violence and rule-breaking I’ve tried to show lots of examples of violence and rulebreaking. Right now I want to try something else:
Think about this story. Think about the first time you heard of it. Whatever your reaction was - whether or not you immediately picked a side, and whichever that side was, I’m willing to bet you believed it. I mean details aside, I bet you believed that a stripper was hired, and objected to her treatment, and a gay couple was yelled at - whether you think these things are admirable or execrable or simply no big deal, you wouldn’t assume they were just plain made up. Because on a very basic level we all know - all of us who grew up here at least - that This Is What They Are Like, the ruggers. We all walked the school hall in fear of their approach, or sided with them so as not to fear. We all went to that party where the ruggers turned up and one of them laid a turd in the bowl of chips.* We all worked that hospitality job where The Boys descending on your bar/hotel/restaurant was the occasion for the spilling of blood and beer and piss and puke and the boss said to grin and bear it because it’s The Boys, and Boys Will Be Boys.
This one time at teacher training, all of us trainee teachers were ushered into the presence of the principal at a distinguished Rugby school. We were allowed one question. One of my cohort used his one question to ask, “Where are the first fifteen?” Meaning “Why are they never required to attend class? Or, seemingly, school for that matter?” Everyone knew what he meant, even those of us who only been at the school for 6 weeks. The principal claimed not to know what he meant.
We grew up with these people, and we know what they are like, and yet when they are swept straight from their protective bubble in the school system into a literal Old Boys’ Network designed to profit from their bodies while preventing their experiencing any real consequences for any of their actions, we cry foul when they misbehave. Which is stupid because they have never been offered an incentive to behave. We say “Come on guys, you’re better than this”, which is stupid because we know them, and we know they aren’t. We say they should behave well because they are role models, which is stupid because it’s not their fault if we look up to them, we are adults who can make our own choices. They’ve never been in that position. They’ve always been The Boys.
The fallout from this let’s-face-it-absolutely-typical post-match celebration showed how times have changed, and how they haven’t.
Times have changed because there is now a great deal more money in Rugby, which enables franchises to hire communications professionals to write plausible-sounding apologies like this: "We accept that as professional players and professional sports teams we have a level of responsibility that is higher than normal members of the public. The key to us now is that we deal with it appropriately."
Times haven’t changed that much though, because New Zealand’s generations-long habit of constantly behaving as though Rugby players are somehow better than us has weirdly given them the idea that they are better than us. We can see it writ small in Rob Nichol’s reference above to ‘normal members of the public’** but to be fair to him, he is trying to do a brand new thing in the world of Rugby, which is to own up to a pattern of behaviour and at least pretend to try and change it. Chief’s boss Andrew Flexman provided us with Rugby’s real reaction to criticism:
Flexman said that the stripper's claims were "one person's accusation and her standing in the community and culpability is not beyond reproach". In the name of what journalists now call balance, I will admit that he walked that statement back after large numbers of people informed him exactly how shitty such a statement is. But I will not accept his weak appeals to ‘context’. If I say “I hate ruggers who sexually assault people” and Flexman chooses to quote me as saying “I hate ruggers”, that statement has been taken out of context.*** If I say “I hate ruggers” as a joke,**** and Flexman chooses to quote me as serious, that statement has been taken out of context. If I say “Many strippers say ‘I hate ruggers’” and Flexman chooses to quote me as saying “I hate ruggers”, that statement has been taken out of context.***** This is not that.
This is a man who holds a number of beliefs, revealing those beliefs under pressure. Let’s look at them.
1) What you do is who you are. If you work as a stripper, you are a stripper. That’s who you are.
2) What you do speaks to your status. Some jobs make you better than ‘normal members of the public’. Some make you worse.
3) If you accuse someone of a crime, the worth of that accusation depends on your worth.
4) If you wish to be treated with dignity, you must be worthy of dignity. This depends on who you are.
I’ve got some pretty hefty problems with all of those assumptions. But I believe that if you’re going to judge people by a set of standards, you should be prepared to be judged by those standards yourself. So let’s judge Rugby by the ethic of Andrew Flexman.
Rugby Players do Rugby, so that’s who they are. They are Rugby Players.
Being a Rugby Player affords you a certain status. We, as a society, can decide whether the status of Rugby Players should be higher or lower than that of a stripper.
So what should the status of a Rugby Player be? By their acts we shall know them.
Rugby Players are the inheritors of a long tradition among humans and other mammals, in which members of a group dance or sing or perform feats of strength or dexterity to prove their fitness as a potential mate. As societies become more complex, these sexual displays are codified into sports and symphonies and dances, all of which can be performed at home for fun, but have also developed into professions. A Rugby Player, thus, is a person blessed by nature or hard training or both, with certain physical characteristics enabling them to perform feats of physical prowess in front of crowds of mostly men, causing said men to enter a frenzy. They do this for money. Some of them by choice, and some because they have no opportunity to earn a similar amount in any other profession. Those of you who have seen where I’m heading with this will argue that there’s a big difference between throwing a ball around for money and taking your clothes off for money. Jockey corporation (and its employees, The Boys) beg to differ.
So by any objective measure, the ’standing in the community’ of a Rugby Player is the same as that of any other stripper. Both show off their bodies for cash. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to decide whether the Porn of Violence is worse than the Porn of Sex, or whether being photographed in your undies is worse than dancing in your undies, or whether any of them has any place in any community. They’re here. They’re weird. But we’re used to them. Flexman also mentions ‘culpability’; if this means anything at all, it seems to mean that if you signed up to do a job, every evil that comes with it is your fault. I sincerely hope that he is willing to live by that sword.
So who should have higher status in the community? Well, let us decide by thought experiment. You have thrown a party. It is about to be crashed by 25 uninvited guests. Which statement fills you with more fear?
a) “Here come The Rugby Players!”
b) “Here come The Strippers!”
Yeah, I know, that’s stupid. The Strippers might be arseholes. The Rugby Players might be nice. Because people are not their jobs. People are a complex mix of their words, and their actions, and their choices, and the effect these things have on those around them.
I myself could never live by a code as stringent as the Flexman Ethic. I have grave reservations about Rugby, and the effect it has on its practitioners, and its viewers, physically and mentally. There are those who would say the same about stripping. But I don’t get to make choices for other people, and neither does Andrew. People must do right by their own lights, even if some blogger/rugger disapproves. I believe that there are ways to do unpleasant jobs with dignity. Ways to treat people who do unpleasant jobs with dignity. For all the pent-up bile I put into these posts, I don’t actually believe that a Rugger is a lesser person than I, just because he does a thing that I viscerally despise. People are going to do their thing, and if we don’t like it we can at least take that most Kiwi of attitudes and Let Them Get On With It. On good days I believe most of us feel this way.
But I know by their actions that the Chiefs don’t feel this way. And I know by their words that the Flexmen don’t feel this way. So maybe as a community we could do this one thing. We can stop looking up to them. Their standing in the community, and their culpability, are not beyond reproach. If they wish to be treated with dignity, they must first be worthy of dignity.
But that depends on who they are.
*Yep, true story, though not from my own experience - relayed to me by an eyewitness who is Male and works in IT, so I guess deserves Respect and Belief, even if a stripper doesn’t...
**Which makes ruggers abnormal members of the public, one supposes?
***Though in this case it’s still true…
****No joke. I hate them. All of them, except Tana and Anton Oliver.
*****Although, again. I fucking hate them. Imaginary Flexman actually kind of has a point.