Thursday, October 2, 2014

Against Rugby 1

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.

Okay?  Here’s Against Rugby 1: Ubiquity


In our first Against Rugby, let’s address the most obvious question: What is the big problem?  If you don’t like rugby, no one is making you watch it.   I have respect for this argument.  As a fan of ultra-violence, swear words, off-colour jokes and adult situations, I side with those who urge would-be censors to change the channel, install the kiddie lock, read the rating, vote with your feet. I believe that movies can feature verbal abuse and bloody beheadings and even kissing, pop songs can have bad words in them, ladies in paintings can wear no clothes, and if you don’t like these things you can look away.  And if you don’t mind them yourself but would prefer your kids not to see or hear them you can take your own steps to minimise their exposure.

What I argue here about rugby is that there is no kiddie lock.  There is no way to look away.  And the steps one must take to minimise exposure are extreme.

Rugby as Social Lubricant

I grew up in rural Taranaki.  Social life was built around rugby.  Parties were scheduled, by rugby players, for Saturdays, after the game.  Friday parties were a non-option: The Game is on Saturday.  (Non-rugby players would obviously lack the social cachet to throw a party, Friday or Saturday, that anyone would attend, unless they were willing/able to offer free alcohol and drugs.)  The size of any given party was naturally dictated by an equation wherein the importance of the rugby game which was showing on the television that evening - big game, big party - was multiplied by the importance of any game which might have been played in person by party attendees that day - big game, then big game: big party squared.  There was, of course, another option, which was not to go to the party.  Going down this road in 2-channel, 1-TV, pre-internet New Zealand left one with the two sub-choices of watching the big game at home with your family, or sitting in your room reading George Bernard Shaw and practicing Metallica riffs.  Sometimes even I watched the game.

I went to University in urban* Hamilton.  This provided me with unheard-of cultural opportunities: I could watch independent movies, and go to live gigs.  I still saw easily twice as many hours of rugby as either films or live music combined.  A person cannot live on cultural products alone - you have to socialise.  And the bars where there were actually people present always contained multiple rugby screens; the party scene was still much as described above, and unless you chose to live in an electricity-free anarchist squat, the Big Game would always be on the television, without fail.

Certainly I had the option of sitting alone in my room, smoking and listening to the Verlaines on vinyl, only emerging to watch touring Flying Nun legends playing to 5 people in the student union bar once every three months.  And there were times when I took this option.  But it’s hardly what one would describe as a healthy social life.  And let’s remember what I’m arguing here:  I’m arguing against the idea that, like any other obscenity, if you don’t like rugby, you don’t have to look at it.  Which is literally true; it’s just that not looking at it involves living in a cave and speaking to no one, and I suggest that this is an extreme measure to have to take.

True: living in Wellington, in a sheltered bubble of middle-class, arts-oriented hipsterdom, I have escaped the rugby = socialising/socialising = rugby trap.  I can go literally hours without remembering the game even exists.  But what if I didn’t want to move to Wellington?  Imagine if I simply wanted a reasonable human existence, in any other part of the country.  Without necessarily having to rugby my way through a huge rugby of rugby, just to hang out with people like a person?  Is that entirely unreasonable?

Rugby as Explanation for Everything

Rugby is not merely omnipresent in provincial social life in New Zealand.  It’s also the single biggest source of analogies in politics and news reporting.  It is impossible to watch a television news show without encountering this kind of helpful explanation:

“The hole in the side of the cruise ship was 22 metres long; that’s the distance from the goal line of a rugby-field to the 22 line.”

“38,628 people are estimated to have died of malnutrition in the impoverished country this month alone: that’s as many people as it takes to fill Jade Stadium once.”

“The child’s skull was fractured in 14 places.  That number of fractures is the same as the number of players in a rugby team, if one has been sent off with a fractured skull.”

In New Zealand politics, ‘All Blacks’ and ‘Rugby’ are used as cues for the public to stop thinking and uncritically accept any statement, however banal, wrong-headed, or plain untrue.  They are every bit as potent as ‘9/11’ and ‘War on Terror’ in the United States.  John Key, whose party’s success depends heavily on his personal popularity, is unsurprisingly a master of the rugby analogy.

This is condescending in the extreme.  I quite possibly hate rugby more than any other person alive, and I do not intend to argue that people who watch rugby are too stupid to conceive of a number higher than ten without rugby as a conceptual mediator.  Anyone whose mind can grasp the intricate variety of possible offences during the breakdown can understand any other system of rules and practices without needing an oval ball to make it ‘relatable’.

And there is the crux of this silliness: rugby is seen as the thing we can all relate to, because we are all subject to rugby.  That we are all also subject to the laws of nature and nation, to the vagaries of politics and economics, human emotion and anatomy, seems to slip the attention of the analogisers.  You don’t get those things.  You get rugby.  It’s like when a rugby player is playing rugby and he gets the ball.  Then he’s got it.  That’s what it’s like.  It’s like rugby.

Rugby as Source of Advertising Shills

So you don’t like rugby.  Stay at home!  Have no friends!  Don’t watch the news!  Don’t read interviews with politicians!  Simple.

Unless you like Weet Bix, in which case alongside 25% of the folate RDI for women of childbearing age, you’ll be receiving small plastic cards outlining the career highlights of notable All Blacks, and the number of Weetbix they eat.  Or maybe you work somewhere outside your home.  In which case you will be walking (okay, I admit it, driving) past billboards featuring various rugby practitioners frantically suppressing their semi-erections while rubbing naked shoulders in the name of Jockey Underwear.  If this understandably gets you a little hot, you’ll want to cool down with a nice refreshing beer.  Here’s one that’s been sponsoring the All Blacks for 25 years, with completely unpredictable results.

There are plenty of side-effects of using national sporting representatives as sales folk for international corporations.  The only one we need deal with here is the effect of cultural saturation.  Using rugby board employees as corporate spokesmodels contributes to a landscape in which rugby is the only visible activity; blotting out more worthwhile pursuits (i.e. everything) and creating a self-propagating ecology of attention: “Look at the rugby!  There’s nothing else to look at . . . hey no one’s looking at our thing.  Better put some rugby on it, it’s the only thing they’ll look at.”

Advertising has always played to the basest of human tendencies for the precise reason that these things are universal - jingoism, sex, fear, status anxiety, bad body image, good body image, and hunger of every kind are the stuff of which marketing is made.  Placing rugby alongside these human universals is confirming that we are plagued with rugby in the same way we are plagued with lust and self-doubt.  Which may indeed be an unfortunate truth, but one would hardly think it was one which the IRB would be in a hurry to emphasise.

Rugby as Synonym for Sport

Rugby’s ubiquity even has deleterious effects in the places where it is arguably belongs - the sports sections of television news programs and newspapers.  There is a hierarchy of sports reporting in New Zealand.  The first tier is occupied by anything pertaining to the All Blacks - training, extra-curricular activities, disgraceful public behaviour, travel plans, and even occasionally the playing of an international fixture.  The second is occupied by the Super 14 competition, usually with a focus on games played in the competition, but also discussions of tactics and the hiring and firing of coaches and players.  If there is any time left in the sports segment (or pages remaining in the sports section), it will be dedicated to tier three: Other Sports (misc), in order of importance: Australian Rugby League (teams with higher proportion of NZ players more important), NZ international cricket,  Indian Professional League cricket (teams with higher proportion of NZ players more important), any sport in which a New Zealand team or player has claimed a world championship this week - including, magnanimously and for the first time in the hierarchy, women athletes (provided they have won a large international competition).  In the vanishingly unlikely event that there is time or space to report on any other sport, it is usually from a kind of ‘human interest’ angle:  “And here’s a young man who hopes to start New Zealand’s first Handball league.   Adorably, he maintains that Handball is a real sport with rules and players and everything, just like Rugby.  Just goes to show it takes all sorts…”

Given that Rugby games are more often televised live and at full length than any other sport, given that the activities of rugby players and coaches are more likely than those of any other sport to be classified as “News” rather than “Sports News”, given that there are ample opportunities to see All Blacks at work and play in a variety of contexts including rugby-dedicated panel shows, rugby-dominated panel shows, a dedicated rugby channel, and a plethora of rugby-only websites, there’s a reasonable argument that Sports News could be profitably dedicated to sports other than rugby - a sole opportunity for consumers of mainstream media to find out that other sports are being played in this country.  Imagine a world in which full bore target shooting or free diving made regular appearances on nightly news broadcasts.  Devoutly to be wished.  But best not to hold your breath.

What To Do With Your Strange Enthusiasm

Growing Up Nerdy in New Zealand is an object lesson in how and when to share your obsessions.  Watching New Zealand’s physical and cultural landscape being swamped in Lord of the Rings references through the first decade of this century was a bittersweet experience for those of us who had to hide their Tolkein tomes at the bottom of our schoolbags for fear of beatings and ostracism.  New Zealand’s anti-intellectualism is so strongly internalised as to remain largely unspoken.  In fact, most Kiwis would be surprised to hear their country described as anti-intellectual.  I mean, look at our team

Like most countries colonised by England, New Zealand seems to have forged its identity based on frontier ideas of simplicity, physicality, and pragmatism, reacting rebellious-teen style against the Old Country’s class system with rigid social egalitarianism.  A natural side effect has been the perception that a liking for the works of Chaucer or a passing familiarity with Homer or Virgil are elitist relics of a Public School system where rote learning of arcane knowledge was a passport to privilege regardless of ‘real world’ ability or merit.  And it’s certainly true that an aptitude for conjugating Latin verbs was no guarantee of success as an administrator.  What is less often addressed is whether an aptitude for throwing a ball around while large men try to lie on you is a guarantee of worth as a role model.

Look, here’s the thing:  I don’t want to return to the bad old days where a student who just wants to grow up and be an All Black is forced to memorise screeds of Shakespeare or face ritual beatings from his teacher.  It’s just that we have intentionally or otherwise replaced this with a system where a student who just wants to memorise screeds of Shakespeare has to hide his propensities or face ritual beatings from his fellow students.**  And though the beatings generally end if you escape school alive, the policing of conformity does not.  Here is a real conversation I once had with a real person, when I worked on the trains in Wellington:

Middle-aged lady wearing yellow rugby Jersey:  Who are you going for?
Me:  Who’s playing?
M-ALWYRJ: We’re playing the Crusaders!
Me:  Oh, rugby.  I don’t really follow rugby.
M-ALWYRJ: Well get off this train then.  What are you even doing here?
Me: Taking tickets.  Can I have your ticket please?

I don’t care how drunk you are, that’s just plain rude.  Why do I have to like rugby, or get off the train? I happen to quite like attempting to read Flaubert in the original French.  It’s a strange enthusiasm, I’ll grant you.  But it’s mine, and I’m allowed it.  I do, however, understand that other people might not like it, and that even if they don’t like it, they’re allowed to be in my general vicinity in public. They can take the same train as me, for example, and I don’t even mind.  What I propose is this revolutionary concept - freedom of personal choice.  I undertake not to force anybody to read the complete works of Flaubert in the original French.  I see no reason why anyone should do so, if they don’t want to.  I won’t even bring it up in conversation, unless I know my interlocutor shares my strange enthusiasm.  I won’t assume that everyone has read what I’ve read, or that those who haven’t are in some way lacking or unworthy.  In return for my generosity, can you please take your rugby and fuck off?  I don’t have to like it, and I shouldn’t have to pretend to, and I shouldn’t have my every interaction with my society predicated on the assumption that I share this strange enthusiasm.  I don’t like rugby.  I live for the day when I can I can honestly say that no one is making me watch it.

*Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaa …
**News media regularly bewail the fact that girls have been outperforming boys academically in NZ schools for almost a generation, without ever addressing the somewhat related fact that in NZ schools boys are much, much more likely to be punched in the face by their peers for knowing things than girls are.