Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Against Rugby 2: Tiddlywinks

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 2: Tiddlywinks

I am about to do one of my favourite things in the whole world.  I’m going to say something that is clearly, self-evidently, and objectively true, which will be believed by nobody who reads it.

I say it’s one of my favourite things, but having considered this essay for some time, I have to say it makes a man rather defensive, knowing he’s about to write something literally unacceptable.  Having said this thing, which is so true as to border on truism, I’m then going to spend an inordinate amount of essay anticipating objections and attempting to counter them in advance.  Which is a terribly negative and passive way of writing a thing, and which somewhat irks me even as I type this introduction.

I can’t help it though.  I’m about to tell you Rugby is Violent.

No one has even read this yet,* and already I can hear the bloody whining.  O, the PC brigade is out in blah! I suppose you want to wrap us all in cotton etc!  But but but sport is a positive outlet for yada freaking yada!  If this is your reaction be advised you’re not rebutting.  You’re jerking your knee.  I haven’t even said I disapprove of violence.  In fact, in just a few thrilling minutes, I’m going to argue that consensual violence is Mostly Fine.  So imagine for a second that I’m not arguing that Violence is always Inherently Bad, or that all exercise is evil and must be stopped, or that we should all dwell in flower palaces, ride organic free-range unicorns to work at the PC Brigade’s National Office, and replace competitive endeavour with co-operative Hot Yoga and Emotional Support Festivals.  Imagine that, and think -

If you’re running along and someone throws themselves at you, knocking you down, that is an act of violence.

If you’re lying on the ground, and a large number of large people throw themselves upon you, that is an act of violence.

Those acts of violence are black-and-white legal in the game of rugby, in the same way that punching someone in the face** is black-and white legal in the game of boxing.  So I guess I should just finish the essay here.  But I’m a bloody-minded fellow, and I’d like to remind you all of the myriad acts of violence which, while strictly illegal in the game of rugby, are condoned to some extent or another, often as a kind of just punishment for rugbian transgressions.

If you put your hand on something you shouldn’t - let’s say your friend’s first-pressing Beatles record -and your friend puts on a shoe covered in hard plastic studs, and crushes your hand with it, that is an act of violence.

If someone is trying to run away with an object you believe is yours - let’s say a pumpkin that looks suspiciously like the one you just bought at the vege market - and you drive your shoulder into the pumpkin, driving the pumpkin into the alleged thief’s chin, knocking them senseless and spilling the pumpkin, that is an act of violence.***

If you are trying to run somewhere - let’s say, back to your car in the Pak ’n’ Save carpark after having stashed your trolley - and someone comes toward you, potentially impeding your progress, and you fend them off with a heel of the hand to the neck, knocking them to the ground, that is an act of violence.

The analogues of all these acts, be they strictly-legal, or strictly-illegal-but-it’s-okay-because-reasons, are the bricks and mortar of which rugby is made.  Without them, you’d be playing a different game.   Rugby is Violent.  If we could just admit it and move on, the whole pitiful charade would be just that one iota less intolerable, which would constitute a good start.

So let’s try and make violence okay for a second.  Let’s talk consensual violence.  A short list of perfectly fine violent episodes could include:

- Flirting.  We can all fulsomely agree that the whole arm-punching, hair-pulling, give-me-that-back-it’s-mine-no-actually-let’s-wrestle-on-the-couch-for-it school of courtship is as excruciatingly awkward as a meet ’n’ greet between the National Blackboard Association and the People’s Republic of Fingernail, but there is no-one alive who has not indulged its awfulness to some extent.  Consensual violence is a universal standard expression of sexual love.  Think about that when you’re struggling to sleep tonight.

- Assault Sports™.  UFC, Tae Kwan Do, Boxing, Kickboxing, Sabot, Karate, Kung Fu, Capoeira****, Ju Jitsu, going for a drink in Palmerston North - taking part in all these activities and many more indicates presumed consent for violence, and a good time is had by all, except those drinking in Palmerston North.

- Self defence.   No one, having walked up to you and head-butted your nose to breaking point, is going to argue that you are not now granted full permission to head-butt back, breaking their nose in turn.  Whatever the state of the law in your country, it is considered a human universal that checking me is an invitation for me to check you back.  And yes, I am claiming bonus points for working a Cypress Hill reference into an anti-Rugby essay.

- Civil Disobedience.  This one is marginal.  But civil disobedience has two main ingredients - the knowledge that the state has various forms of violence at its disposal - physical restraint, tasers, water cannon, short or long term detention, big sticks; and the willingness to provoke the state to use those forms of violence in defence of an unjust state of affairs, hoping that the resulting shame will be a catalyst for change.  Participants in civil disobedience can scarcely be described as consenting to violence, but they do know the risks and are willing to take them for the greater good.

- Fight Club.  I’m not going to talk about this.

So okay, violence can be consensual; and my opinion is that consensual violence is okay.  So the violence in rugby is consensual, and thus okay.  End of rant, right?

Well, no.  For three reasons: firstly, informed consent is a big, grey area we refuse to explore, and no one in rugby is properly informed about the risks.  Secondly, rugby’s inherent violence has a nasty tendency to leak, and we are rubbish at addressing that, and thirdly, Rugby isn’t violent, remember?  We are a loooong way from convincing everyone that Rugby is a form of consensual violence.  I’ve only just convinced you. (Yes, I have. Shut up.)

Let’s talk informed consent first.  It is accepted that Rugby causes injuries.  But the extent to which Rugby wounds its children is very seldom openly discussed in New Zealand.  In the United States a combination of medical advances and public exposure led to the NFL being forced to address the issue of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in its players, albeit thus far in a token way.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Offensive Play offers a sobering view of the long-term effects of getting your head whacked all the time; and remember, those guys wear helmets like a bunch of pussies.  

More shocking perhaps than the fact that smacking your head damages your brain is that, despite the high profile of this issue in The States, there is no comparable research being publicised in New Zealand, no think-piece long-read in our middle-class magazine, no suggestion that all those  knockouts may require treatment beyond monitoring ‘in line with head injury protocols’.  New Zealand media’s take on the NFL brain-trauma controversy was to ask the NZRU, who said and I quote “Rugby is not NFL”.   No shit, NFL players have helmets.*****  When the linked article was written one trained nurse was writing a PhD on concussion in Rugby Union.  I hope that when it is published the NZRU will see fit to respond in something approaching a grown-up fashion.

Leaving aside the possibility that playing rugby will destroy your brain so badly that your only career option will be to become a NZRU spokesfucker, the game causes injuries at every level. It regularly tops the ACC’s list of most costly sports: in 2010 - 11 Rugby injuries cost more than those of football and netball combined (“It may be that there are simply more people playing Rugby”, opined Peter Wood, wrongly), and at the professional level injuries are so completely de rigeur that people collate them into nice handy lists (for those of you who prefer footnotes to links, I’ve written a little poem below******).

Maybe, just maybe, every single person who chooses to play rugby really is informed about the actual risks, and gives genuinely informed consent to take those actual risks every time they take the field, but for the sake of this essay I’m going to go ahead and assume that they’re people, just like us, and they assume the bad thing is not going to happen to them, just like we do when we cross the road or eat a whole goddamn bag of chips in one sitting.  Which is fine, but it raises the question - if rugby is consensual violence, why not create a standard of informed consent?  If the risks are genuinely minimal, there’s no harm in admitting them.  If the risks are considerable, prospective players should be allowed to consider them.

And it’s not just onfield, consensual violence we have to worry about.  Rugby players have a history of attacking and raping people and getting away with it [Trigger warning]. Violence perpetrated off the field by Rugby players, and the free-pass culture we’ve developed around the issue, is too big a can of worms for this essay, so it’s going to get its very own essay in due time.  For now I will say this.  The violence in Rugby often leaks out of rugby.  When it does, New Zealand tends to cover its ears and yell ‘La la la, I can’t hear you, boys will be boys, La la la’, and that is nowhere neeeear good enough.

So, point the third.  Rugby isn’t violent.  I mean, all those people get injured, but they’re doing it wrong.  No one gets hurt if you’re doing it right.  Well, okay, sometimes everyone’s doing everything right, and someone still gets hurt, but what are you going to do? It’s Not Tiddlywinks.

And there we have it, the phrase that shits me to salty stinging midnight tears - It’s Not Tiddlywinks.  Let us be crystal clear: you can say that Rugby is Not Violent, or you can say that Rugby is Not Tiddlywinks, but you Can Not Say Both.

Saying ‘it’s not tiddlywinks’ is admitting that there is an element of violence to the game, and that the players know this and go into it with their eyes open.  Which is to say, that Rugby is a form of Consensual Violence.  The difference is that ‘it’s not tiddlywinks’ sounds folksy and common sensical, where as ‘it’s consensual violence’ makes the sport sound exactly like the weird, ritual-bullying-ridden, posh-kids-version-of-competitive-shin-kicking (it’s real!!) that it actually is.

There’s a hidden value system behind the statement that It’s Not Tiddlywinks, and I’m going to give you a little glimpse of that value system, applied in a different arena, and I hope it makes you sick and angry, because then you’ll have a little taste of what it’s like for me to read the sports pages.

Public life is another arena which people enter by choice, and there is a distinct strain of It’s Not Tiddlywink-ism running through our public discourse which says something like this: everyone knows that public life exposes you to opprobrium of various sorts, and you shouldn’t have entered public life if you can’t take a little sledging. So let’s play not-tiddlywinks with some public rugbians and see how their it’s-not-tiddlywinking fans like it.

John Kirwan is a failed rugby coach who never played rugby professionally, unless you count a brief career playing for a middling Australian League team who lost more games than they won.  One day he woke up feeling as though he had wasted his life, which was of course entirely true - he had spent his best years pursuing an unpaid hobby which has no value, and had no prospects other than a) hocking ghost-written tomes about his career as an amateur tiddlywinker-or-whatever or b) finding a country whose tiddlywinks-or-whatever coach was worse at coaching than he was and inveigling himself into a paying position.  He was diagnosed with depression, and now speaks publicly about mental health issues in New Zealand.  Of course, speaking about mental health issues is much more valuable than playing rugby, but then, so is literally anything at all, and besides, if you waste your life doing something worthless, and wake up one day feeling that you have wasted your life doing something worthless, you are not experiencing depression, you are experiencing a Moment of Clarity.

Jonah Lomu was a car-stereo-collector whose only claim to posterity other than lending his name to the world’s single most boring Playstation game was taking a perfectly good kidney from a local DJ and using the precious lease of life it provided to break New Zealand Electoral Law with impunity, tweeting to his 40-something thousand followers that they should vote for a political party whose policies were very favourable to people with Lomu’s income, but positively harmful to people with the income of most of his fans.  Despite this demonstrably-criminal and arguably-immoral act being widely reported in mainstream media, he was not charged, because you can do anything you like in this country if you once threw a ball around good.  This achievement means that alongside his legacy of being an oft-quoted demonstration of the problematic use of Body Mass Index as a measure of obesity, he will be remembered mostly as a shining example of how people who once wore a black jumper with a fern on it are not held to the same legal standards as their fellow citizens.

While obviously true, these are horrible things to say about anybody, and I think public discourse would be much improved if we all agreed to be a little nicer to each other.  But what the hey, it’s public life, they entered it voluntarily, it’s not tiddlywinks, right?

Well, that was fun, and I for one feel much better.  And now, here’s my point: it is much worse to physically hurt people than to say mean things about them.  Your Year 11 Life Skills teacher was right: no one can put you down without your permission.  But people can break your face without your permission, as your Year 11 classmates will gladly demonstrate if you don’t like rugby and you say so out loud.  If you think (as I do, most of the time) that just because Lomu and Kirwan are public figures, that doesn’t mean you can be as nasty as you like about them, surely you can agree that just because someone has chosen to play rugby, it doesn’t mean you can cause them hideous and permanently damaging physical injuries then justify your assault with an ‘It’s not Tiddlywinks’.

There is a way forward.  As a country, we are quite good at identifying public risks and actively educating the public about them - the risks of smoking, drinking, speeding, even sloppy DIY practices are widely acknowledged, and the relevant authorities are committed to making sure the public are fully aware of these risks.  We can learn to treat Rugby the same way we treat binge drinking: obviously some idiots will always engage in it no matter what we do or say, but it remains our duty to ensure that everyone is as informed as possible about the inherent risks; that we are making the choice to watch or partake in consensual violence with both eyes open.

Until then, I will feel few qualms about telling anyone who will listen that Andrew Hore is a feral, seal-killing, halfwit troglodyte.  After all, It’s Not Tiddlywinks.

*Yeah yeah, very funny.
** Here, I’m also implicitly arguing that punching faces is violent.  I hope that is not too controversial.
***Justifiable though, yeh?  I mean, don’t touch a man’s pumpkin…
****Ironic inclusion really, given that Capoeira is entirely composed of pretend violence.  That’s right Capoeiristas, I said your violence is pretend.  Whatchoo gonna do?  Gonna pretend come at me?  Go on then.  Pretend hit me as hard as you can.  I’m pretend ready.
***** Pussies.
****** Knee knee knee knee ankle ankle thumb shoulder concussion knee knee knee shoulder shoulder rib jaw shoulder shoulder knee knee one hand calf ankle blood clot (!) knee ankle bicep hip elbow knee knee shoulder groin jaw neck bicep hamstring hamstring shoulder shoulder hand ankle facial laceration