Saturday, September 12, 2015

Against Rugby 3: Striking Problems

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 3: Striking Problems

In our last episode we established that Rugby is a form of violence, and we touched on the tendency of this violence to leak from the field.  I wrote then that off-the-field violence was too big a subject to cover in that one blog entry, and promised to cover it in a later blog.  Then I got distracted for a time.

Then George Moala was discharged without conviction, having beaten a man so well and truly unconscious that he was hospitalised.  And for a very short while, the mainstream media entertained the notion that  maybe Rugby players who assault humans are treated differently by the courts than humans who assault humans.

Then I got all confused.  

I thought I was going to write about how Rugby players like to beat people up, which would have been a simple affair.  Five minutes on google will give you upwards of thirty recorded instances of high-profile players assaulting people, and those are just the ones that made the courts and the papers.  Besides, anyone who has been to school or a pub in New Zealand is already thoroughly aware that Rugby players like to beat people up.

But it’s worse than that - they seem to get away with it too.  Bill Hodge, Law Professor at Auckland in the article linked above: 

“I'm thinking that judges should look a bit more critically at that issue ... because it's something the defence counsel will, of course, automatically raise, and it is not available if you are a plumber, you're working on a building site, you're a blue-collared worker, or a shop assistant. It's just a bit concerning that it seems to be setting up a two-tier system of justice, where one class of people get one form of justice, and a different class of people get a different form. Having been a lower court judge myself it does seem that judges should be a little more analytical, critical, or shall I say sceptical, when they get those sorts of submissions."

So maybe I should be writing about how Rugby players seem to be able to beat humans with impunity. But that’s a much harder blog to write.  Whenever I raise the subject with Rugby-loving friends, I’m always told to Prove It. If Players are more likely to escape conviction than plumbers, there should be evidence of that in the public record.  But of course a Player’s assault charge is far more likely to make the papers than a normal person’s. In the face of a two-tier media, proving a two-tier justice system is a slippery thing.

How could we prove that Rugby players are not punished for assault the way normal people are?  Here are some possible methods: 
- Compare the number of Rugby players who walk away from assault charges to the number of plumbers or builders or web developers who walk away.  
- Find out how many Rugby players there are; find out how many are charged with assault; find out how many of them are discharged without conviction; repeat for a number of different professions.  
- Find out how many assault charges were discharged without conviction last year; find out how many of those were Rugby players; compare to other professions.  

And so forth.  All of this is worth doing, and over the last weeks I have tried to do so; but with limited time and resources it’s proved next to impossible.  I’ll definitely publish any numbers anyone would care to provide me, whether they support my personal prejudices or not.

But hang on a fucking second.

Even if sixty plumbers were charged with assault this morning, and their cases never made the papers, there is a reason that a Rugby player’s assault charge might make the papers when a plumber’s assault charge might not.*

Rugby players are Representatives.  

It is understood (and, increasingly, contractually established) that a Wellington Rugby player represents the Wellington team, the Wellington region, and more importantly to New Zealanders than these or anything else, the Game Of Rugby Itself.  Players sign legal documents agreeing not to bring their cult into disrepute.  The best plumber in Wellington may well represent her company, but no one would argue that she represents Wellington, or Plumbing Itself, and she sure as hell did not sign a contract to that effect.  If she beats someone up, it’s between her and her victim, and maybe her employer.  Plumbing doesn’t have to come into it.

But if a Rugby player beats a person, Rugby must come into it.  Because Rugby players are Representatives. Before we enter The Hit List, and before we get distracted by questions of how many discharged convictions can dance on the head of a pin, let’s take a moment to think what it means to be a Representative. 

If the All Blacks win a game of Rugby, it is said that We Won. Newspapers say that We Won.  Your overbearing workmate says that We Won. 

Newspapers do not report that 20 overpaid alcoholic Adidas models did more ball points than the 20 overpaid alcoholic models sponsored by another corporation.  Your overbearing workmate does not admit that he played no part in McCaw’s creative interpretation of the recently-changed rules around hands in the play-the-ball area during breakdown.  Even though both of these statements would be factually correct. 

Even though it is not factually correct to state that three volcanic islands in the South Pacific played a sport. Even though it is not factually correct to state that 4.5 million people drawn from every imaginable ethnicity, age and gender won a game which can only legally be played by fifteen adult men at a time, it is said, incorrectly, that We Won.  Everyone agrees that We Won.  

That might be fair.  We select and pay these people to play on our behalf; they are granted privileges beyond those of ordinary citizens on the understanding that What They Do, We Do.  We are called upon to Stand In Black, to Support Our Boys, precisely because everything they do, they do for us. They are Our Representatives.  When They Win, We Win.

When they grab a woman half their size from behind and shove their hand down her pants, so do we.** 

When they attack their partner, so do we. When they abuse bar staff and throw glasses at them, so do we. When they assault their pregnant wife, so do we.   When they get drunk in a boat and start shooting seals in front of a busload of shocked tourists, so do we. When they smash up the women’s toilets at an upmarket bar and then refuse to leave, so do we. When they beat an eleven-year-old boy with a belt, so do we

I was going to do the rest of the post in this style but I can’t be fucked typing 'So Do We’ twenty five more times. 
Twenty five more times.  

These people represent you.  When they win, you get to say that you won.  You are not permitted to own that victory and disown the kid with the welts on his body so scary that the teacher called the cops. 

Let’s take a break from the hit list.  Rugby players are not the only people who represent New Zealand.  There are a range of other sports folk who are also deemed our representatives.  And although our Prime Minister ruled that “our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks”, writers, artists and musicians are also occasionally permitted to be considered our representatives in their own small way.  Elected Representatives could be said to represent us too, at least if you’re really hooked on semantics.  Maybe they like assaulting people as much as the next flanker?  Let’s see:

Googling ‘NZ Cricket Player assault’ gets you a bunch of stories about Jesse Ryder getting beaten up; and if you look hard enough you’ll find Doug Bracewell involved in some (admittedly disturbing but let’s face it) completely standard boarding-school bullying.  

Googling ‘NZ football player assault’ gets you a lot of league players and the odd NFL story from the states***.  With a bit of determination I uncovered four stories of soccer-assault in New Zealand - all took place on the field; two were perpetrated by players from countries with a history of football-related violence (Brazil and England); one was an all-in brawl involving a Chinese team in Christchurch who had been racially abused for the whole game****; one featured a player in Manukau whose father had recently died, and who was “pushed into playing by teammates and should have instead been undertaking grievance counselling.”

Googling ‘Netball Player Assault’ gets you this kind of thing, which is a pretty neat lesson in the difference between sports professionals and Rugby players.

Who else represents us?  Googling ‘New Zealand Musician assault’ gets you P-Money being a creep (surprise?) and Graham Brazier descending into alcoholic oblivion (surprise?); googling ‘New Zealand Author assault’ yields Eleanor Catton describing TV as an ‘assault on your equanimity’.  Googling ‘New Zealand MP assault’ is just weird, and doesn’t give us any info one way or the other (though obviously there’s the one we can’t talk about because we’re not Australian), and Trevor Mallard punching Tau Henare in the jaw, about which I would hazard the opinion that, provided both jaw and fist were shattered, justice was probably served.*****

So to my friends who ask how I can prove that Rugby players are more violent than, say, plumbers, or web developers, I say: forget the plumbers and the web developers.  They’re just people who happen to have jobs.  If you’re looking for groups who could be said to represent New Zealand, who have a habit of beating the crap out of New Zealanders, the only ones even close to the rugby players are the gangs and the police.

On with the list. Let’s start with the ones who didn’t get away.  

Stephen Bachop, who once threw a ball good, was convicted in 2012 for assaulting his partner and a member of the public. Troy Flavell, who was granted a 1.4 million dollar contract to throw a ball in Japan, was fined $5,500 after pleading guilty to causing an estimated $55,000 worth of damage to a 23-year-old’s mouth.  Norm Maxwell, one-time ball-thrower in New Zealand’s name, pled guilty, and was asked to say sorry and pay $700 for assaulting a doorman and threatening punters at a bar. Sione Lauaki, ball-thrower ordinaire, was fined $800 and had to pay his victim $500 after punching his mouth in a bar. 

Noted ball-thrower Sosene Anesi was fined and given diversion after assaulting a man after an official team function. The CEO of Waikato Rugby, Graham Bowen, noted in mitigation that the incident was between two men (oh, good) and that Anesi was to be credited with not seeking name suppression: "There's a perception out there that sporting people get some sort of preferential treatment, but to his credit Anesi didn't want to seek name suppression. He did something wrong and he fronted up to that.”****** 

Thrower of balls and tantrums Lucky Mulipola received 180 hours’ community work and paid $5000 emotional damages after knocking a person to the ground with one punch at 5am.  (More on this later.)  Dane Coles, who used to try and get a ball with his foot, used his spare time to fight, drive drunk, and stand around with his shirt off on innocent people’s lawns. Robin Brooke, ex-exemplar of New Zealand ball-throwing prowess, turned in his retirement to gallantly grabbing teenagers by the throat, but only because it was 3am.   Erstwhile ball-throwing guy Keith Robinson managed to cop 300 hours of community service for injuring with intent.  Southern thrower of balls Romi Ropati was fined 2000 dollars and ordered to attend anger management courses after fracturing the jaw and smashing the teeth of a Dunedin student. Taranaki ball-thrower Paul Perez felt that his ability to throw a ball should mitigate against his being convicted for choking and punching his pregnant partner; the judge disagreed and fined him $2029 and suggested he attend anger management courses.  Simone Tuita Tauelagi, ball-thrower for Southland, was barred from licensed premises and given 100 hours community service for his tendency to get a bit person-punchy after a few drinks.   Manawatu ball-chucker Paula Maisiri grabbed a Hong Kong police officer by his throat and punched him in the face (perhaps mistaking him for his pregnant partner?) and was fined HK$500.  Byron Kelleher, ball-thrower of international renown, drunkenly crashed into a Porsche and then attacked pretty much everyone who objected to his doing so, receiving a fine and a suspended sentence. 

The behaviours described above are unacceptable in anyone who is considered a representative of anything.  But at least in all of these cases the offender was publicly tried and some sort of justice was seen to be done.  How about the other side of the coin?

The child-assaulter, the friend’s-wife molester, and the pregnant-wife assaulter listed at the start of this debacle have all been granted permanent name suppression.  Matthew Ridge was never charged for his sojourn in the ladies room.  Carlos Spencer punched someone’s face in Tauranga but was not charged. Doug Howlett was not charged for abusing and throwing glasses at bar staff in Auckland, nor for causing $26000 worth of damage to someone’s BMW in England. Adam Thomson’s charges of assaulting a woman were dropped.   Sam Tuitupou had public fighting charges dropped after paying $100 to a charity.  Ma’a Nonu received diversion twice, once for a ‘scuffle’ and once for breaching alcohol bans.   Regan King was arrested for assault in Wales but charges were not forthcoming. Jimmy Cowan was disciplined by the Rugby Union but otherwise escaped without charges after collecting three drunk-and-disorderly arrests in three months.  

After enough of these stories you could be forgiven for believing that the Black Jersey has some kind of conviction-repelling properties.  Remember Lucky Mulipola’s one-punch KO in Dunedin  a couple of paragraphs ago?  Police investigations suggest the incident started when an All Black whose name was never made public insulted the victim.  He was never charged for his part in the assault.  Former All Black Bryce Robins was implicated in an attack which left a victim with a fractured face and ribs and permanent brain injuries: he eventually walked free due to a lack of evidence.   When drunk Jerry Collins and his drunk friend became aggressive with bar staff in Wellington, the drunk friend was “arrested, cuffed, put in the back of the car and taken away.”  Collins on the other hand was told “'Come on Jerry, you're better than this', then they put him in a taxi and sent him home.”  The reason given for their different treatment?  The friend was “obviously having a bit to say”, Collins on the other hand, “played the game”.  An interesting choice of words.  

It’s interesting too that Collins’s drunk friend’s having a bit to say should be seen as grounds for arrest; it speaks to a general attitude in New Zealand that saying things people object to amounts to waiving the right to not be physically attacked.  For example, when Chris Masoe was fined by the Rugby Union (but never charged) for punching a punter in Christchurch, his actions were defended by the renowned philosopher and bar-owner Brent McCully: “…little men with big mouths tend to strike a few problems.”   Get lippy with a police officer, get arrested.  Get lippy with an All Black, get assaulted.  It’s the law completely against the law just plain common sense.

Anyway, enough philosophisin’, let’s get on with the listin’ - Riki Flutey’s unprovoked assault on a teenager broke a nose and an eye socket but no laws, apparently; after the Wellington Rugby Union paid his bail, all charges were dropped on condition he not do it again.   Declan O’Donnell was granted diversion after attacking a bouncer for ejecting his drunk brother.  The bouncer was given 200 hours of community service and 9 months supervision for responding in kind.   

We’ll never know the name of the Rugby International who assaulted his wife and threatened to kill her while in possession of a weapon, nor the Super 14 player who followed suit,  which is tragic, but what’s even more tragic is that I find myself agreeing with Garth Mc Fucking Vicar

After that kind of trauma it’s almost a relief to get back to simple boys-will-be-boys stuff like tangling with bouncers, throwing bottles at women, and attacking Sikh taxi drivers, separate incidents gathered for your convenience in this fun article from a period when Rugby players were evidently so busy attacking the public that the press couldn’t spare a whole web page for each one. If you’re wondering how those three panned out in court the answer would be  - 1) not guilty , just like the time he stomped that guy’s head in self defence; 2) diversion with apology, it was just a bottle after all; and 3) in the end they only charged his mates, weird eh? in that order.

Through all of the linked articles a consistent theme is that the NZRFU seems to take a hard-ish line on its players’ bringing the sport into disrepute.  Fines and bans imposed by the union often seem generally bigger and longer than those imposed by the courts.  

Well, kind of. The longest ban you will read about in this blog post is the six-month ban handed to Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu for critiquing racist practices in the RFU.  Compare this to the 4 weeks handed to Zac Guildford for what can only be described as a feral drunken fucking rampage in Rarotonga and you have a pretty neat illustration of Fuimaono-Sapolu’s point:  it seems the RFU would much rather see its members run around randomly smacking Pacific Islanders than hear them speak up on their behalf.

I’m nearly done with the list.  It's not an exhaustive list, but after all those broken jaws and spilled teeth, I am exhausted. This has to end somewhere.  

So what conclusions can we draw?

Well firstly, Rugby players attack people.  Whether they do so more than any other profession is beyond my ability to establish scientifically.  But that they assault humans with monotonous regularity is undeniable.  And given their status as regional and national representatives, one assaulted human is too many.  They should be held to a higher standard of behaviour, one which matches the prestige we rightly or wrongly bestow on them.

Do they get away with it more often?  Once again, I can’t prove that scientifically.  I do know that in 2008 only 8% of violent offenders in New Zealand were discharged without conviction, which seems very low when you see how many Rugby players on this list went unconvicted.  And whether or not they receive special treatment, they definitely think they deserve it: when apprentice ball-thrower Riley Tane McDowall broke someone’s jaw for saying something,  his defence rested heavily on his promise as a player.  University of Canterbury Dean of Law Chris Gallivan described sportsfolk as the ‘bread and butter of applications to discharge’ in New Zealand.  The argument is that when your plumber or web-developer is convicted of assault her life may go on much as normal; a similar conviction for a representative sportsperson could spell the end of their career.   

To which I say, why shouldn’t it?  For every drunk face-punching thug in one of those jerseys there is a long queue of hopefuls waiting to take their place.  Some of whom, surely, would be glad to keep their fists to themselves in exchange for a shot at representing their town or their country.  It is long past time to teach these people that far from being free from responsibility, their position as representatives makes them more responsible than most for their actions.

And we have a responsibility as a society too, to make it clear to those who represent us, what kind of behaviour we will accept.  For a long time, as James Mountier notes in his thesis on on-field violence,  almost any act of violence on the field was considered part of the game, whether it was within the rules or not. In 1991, after a player ran 25 metres to join a fight, breaking another player’s jaw******* with a single punch, the Court of Appeal said

“… that assaults in the course of sporting contests, such as the various codes of football, cannot be tolerated by the community or the Courts.  Whatever tacit acquiescence may be said to have prevailed in the past in relation to the kind of almost barbaric behaviour exemplified by this case is no longer acceptable by current standards.”

We may never have the power to prevent thugs being thugs.  We do have the power to prevent thugs being our representatives.  It starts when we withdraw our tacit acquiescence.  Bear that in mind this World Cup season.

*Please god if there is a god, let me read that ’60 plumbers charged with separate vicious assaults this morning alone’ headline before you take me unto thy angry bosom…
**This is the only sexual assault I’m including in the list.  Partly because it’s one of very few which made it to trial and resulted in a guilty plea; and partly because I’m not the right writer to take on Rugby’s rapist tendencies.  I wish that writer well, and I salute Louise Hemsley’s courage,  and apologise for my own cowardice.
*** Oh, and Muliaina’s sex charges and Savea’s domestic violence, of course.
**** I know, racially abused in Christchurch!  Hard to believe, right?
***** It’s politics after all. Not tiddlywinks.

****** What a guy.
******* What have they got against jaws, these Rugby Players?