This weekend there was widespread outrage amongst rugby fans, former players and commentators when Mathieu Bastareaud used homophobic language to abuse an opposition player. There is no reason to repeat the word used here as it has been widely reported and was caught on camera.
Whilst Bastareaud was rightly condemned for the language he used there has been little examination of the wider culture that ultimately led to him using that word at all. The word did not simply pop unbidden into Bastareaud’s head. Something must have caused him to believe that the language he used OK making it more likely that this is language he uses regularly. Either he has not been challenged by teammates and coaches at club and international level over a number of years or everyone else around him is also using the same sort of language.
One former player who condemned Bastareaud on Twitter was later called out over their own past use of homophobic language on social media. The tweets were 7 years old and so, we must hope, that person has learned their lesson.
However back in 2016 the same former player jumped to the defence of England prop Joe Marler when he was caught on the referee’s microphone using discriminatory language directed at Samson Lee. The former player hoped World Rugby would see “common sense”.
World Rugby had to take the unprecedented step of dealing with the matter directly after the Six Nations tournament organisers took no action despite widespread condemnation. World Rugby fined Marler £20,000 and banned him for 2 matches. As with Bastareaud the abuse given out by Marler cannot have just popped into his head at that moment. It can only have been the result of a wider culture that permits such language to go unchallenged or where the use of that language is widespread.
It seems highly unlikely that Bastareaud and Marler are one-offs. The more likely explanation is they were unfortunate to be within earshot of the referee’s microphone. Worryingly this points to a wider culture of inappropriate language and behaviour hidden beneath rugby’s claims of high moral values and respect.
We have covered this issue before on the blog during the 2016 Association Football European Championship when there were violent clashes between fans. There are many reasons why rugby has no right to claim the moral high ground over other sports and the Bastareaud incident is just another to add to that list. A three week ban for use of homophonic language is not a good look for the sport regardless of any remorse shown. Two fans who directed homophonic abuse at Nigel Owens from the stands at Twickenham were banned from the stadium for two years. Why shouldn’t Bastareaud be judge by the same standards?
In November last year we launched our own survey on behaviour in rugby after the SRU banned a number of players, officials and coaches from Howe of Fife following a horrific initiation ceremony that went badly wrong. The SRU came down hard on the club and those involved but again questions have to be asked about the circumstances in which such behaviour might end up being considered “normal”.
We received around 400 responses, not just from people in Scotland but other home nations and as far away as New Zealand and South Africa. The results and some of the personal responses we received were eye-opening.
- 55% of respondents said they had experienced behaviour at a rugby match, function or social event that made them feel uncomfortable.
- 51% of those that had experienced such behaviour said it had occurred in the past 5 years and 30% within the past 12 months.
- 25% of respondents said they had considered quitting a team because of the behaviour of their teammates.
- 36% of respondents said they had been put off playing rugby because of the possibility of initiation ceremonies.
- 67% of people who experienced behaviour that made them uncomfortable said they did not speak up at the time. 29% said this was because it wouldn’t achieve anything and 25% were fearful of repercussions.
- 50% of the people who did speak out about behaviour that made them uncomfortable said their concerns were dismissed. 27% said they received an apology but no there was no change in behaviour.
We are not claiming for a second that the responses we received are representative of everyone’s experiences – but nor should they be ignored. The responses we received are not grumblings about behaviour in the distant past, they are about things that are happening now and in recent years and affected over half of those who responded. There is also evidence that unacceptable behaviour in rugby is putting people off joining teams and even causing them to leave the game altogether. Whilst it might not have affected the majority of respondents, the number of those affected are not at a level that should be easily dismissed.
We also asked people for their own personal experiences of behaviour in rugby and homophobic, sexist and racist language and abuse came up time and time again both on and off the field. We also heard of players being forcibly stripped naked with some being sprayed with raglex and others sexually assaulted. In one instance we heard of a club being informed about a serious allegation of sexual assault at a function and then doing all it could to prevent the victim from going to the police.
Some will no doubt dismiss all or most of this as “banter”. The definition of “banter” as a noun is “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks” and an “exchange of remarks in a good-humoured teasing way” if used as a verb. There is nothing good-humoured about homophobic, sexist or racist abuse and it’s hard to see how any of the serious allegations of assault and sexual assault can be dismissed as playful or friendly.
This behaviour belongs in the past, although it should not have even been considered acceptable then. There must be other ways to foster a team cameraderie?
A day of reckoning is coming for society where the events and attitudes of the not so distant past have to be addressed and dealt with. That day has come for the entertainment industry in recent months and rightly so. It would be naïve to think that “#MeToo” and similar movements will not spread to sport and rugby will not be immune from that. The fall out could be catastrophic.
Ultimately rugby is no different from any other sport but the talk of “rugby values” and taking any sort of moral high ground over other sports is idiotic. The Bastareauds and Marlers of the world will be dealt with by the game’s authorities but there needs to be a root and branch change in attitudes and behaviours throughout the sport at all levels. Unions and World Rugby are doing what they can to address the issues but they can only do so much to enforce and educate. Although World Rugby may wish to revisit the current sanctions for discriminatory language and tournament organisers need to be more bold in dishing out suspensions. However, the responsibility to bring about change lies with each and every one of us involved in the sport directly or indirectly. We all have a responsibility to speak up when we see or hear something inappropriate and take people seriously when they do voice concerns.
The Six Nations is now upon us, giving rugby our annual opportunity to showcase the positive aspects of the sport.
Interest in the sport will be at its peak and the tournament undoubtedly has a positive impact on the number of young players coming into the game. Rugby has much to offer. You just have to look at the work of the School Of Hard Knocks or the response when Doddie Weir announced he had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease to see the benefits playing, watching and being involved in the sport can bring in terms of community and social benefits.
However, unless there is a fundamental shift in behaviour there is the risk that rugby’s appeal might sour as society’s tolerance of behaviour and language changes over time. It could change rapidly. As it stands rugby is going to struggle to catch up.
Any comments posting anything potentially libellous (or using the word snowflake) will be removed – Ed