Rugby Devalued

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

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Born a Souter but brought up just south of the Border in Berwick where he played for Berwick RFC as a kid any any position where cover was needed.
Follow Cammy on twitter @CammyBlack

23 comments on “Rugby Devalued

  1. Nicholas on

    Brilliant article Cammy. Dare I say there is a scientific element to this issue where by you have a group of men buzzed up with comradery, testosterone and alcohol?

    It’s definately an issue, and definitely an issue in Scottish rugby that’s having a negative effect on participation.

  2. 1.8T on

    A very interesting article. I think some of the issues here are a reflection on todays wider PC society and not just rugby. In rugby you are just adding a game where tensions are high and outbursts are more likely to occur, people saying things in the heat of the moment they don’t actually think. I think if we are being honest with ourselves we all throw about terms with our mates and colleagues that would be considered abusive by “society”. It is a fine line between banter and abuse sometimes.

    I think the interesting thing though is that there is a perception in society that you have to condone these things publicly despite partaking yourself, along with virtually everyone else.

    Where does the ripping of e.g. English fans purely for being English stop becoming banter and start becoming racist abuse? Myself and English friends will be hurling abuse at each other come the Calcutta cup, we are happy and are all taking it in the right spirit but an outsider listening in might be appalled, does that matter?

    Where rugby does have to get a grip is the actual abuse that is involved with a lot of “initiation” type things. Light hearted teasing and pranks are all fair game IMO but some of them are ridiculous and are bound to put people off playing.

    • Baldred NeoBisset on

      “people saying things in the heat of the moment they don’t actually think. I think if we are being honest with ourselves we all throw about terms with our mates and colleagues that would be considered abusive by “society””

      Actually, I fundamentally disagree with what you’re saying. And your whole post seems to me to indicate you (and your mates) are part of the problem.

      It has never occurred to me – ever – to think or utter a racist comment about another person, whatever the circumstances. The very fact you utter it in the ‘heat of the moment’ is actually Freudian. You may not believe it but somewhere not very deep down, you ARE racist. You might call Bastareaud a ‘ba**ard’, even a ‘f-ing ba**ard’ but why would you ever call him a ‘black ba**ard’ any more than you’d call Haskell a ‘white ba**ard’? Only if you thought somehow being black made him different. Ergo, you are racist. And – no excuses -you need to take a long hard look at yourself.

      Same goes for the ‘me too’ stuff. I teach students in a university. It would never occur to me to comment on a girl’s looks let alone put my hand ANYWHERE on her person. I don’t need university regulations or the law to tell me that and keep me in check.

      Cammy’s call that “the responsibility to bring about change lies with each and every one of us” is spot on, and it begins at home. No excuses.

      PS when does the “fair game” of “light hearted teasing and pranks” slip into plain old bullying? It isn’t defined by the intention of the perps but rather by the feelings and response of the victims.

      • Alanyst on

        3 simple guidelines….

        1 – is it in the person’s power to change easily…e.g. daft hairdo. Or is it innate…e.g. ginger hair. If the latter…desist

        2 – is their opportunity to retort reasonably “symmetrical” (i.e. If I tease you for daft hair, you can get me back for a bad shirt). If you are captain, coach, or otherwise in authority….desist.

        3 – Think is it likely to be significant (in the eyes of the teasee)…if in any doubt, desist. Especially, repeated small things (nice hair!) can become a big thing over time…

      • Dr Love will fix it on

        Baldred, I appreciate your points…but you must also consider how and where people grew up…sometimes this setting was not ideal.

        Attitudes and ways of speaking are learnt at a very young age…then once recognised as being wrong…must be consciously unlearnt.

        Without conscious thought the brain will “shortcut” back to a default…often something you were exposed to at an early age.

        So I don’t think a single x-ist comment, made without deliberate thought, reveals your “dark inner truth”. On this you overstate the case.

        More likely it reveals something about your upbringing…like what your parents or friends said or did…that you had little control over.

        It is wrong, I think, to cast people as being “x-ist”on the basis of an individual verbal expression…I think we’ve all said something regretful in this way.

        Furthermore it is entirely unhelpful to label people x-ists…this only raises more barriers to changing attitudes by creating “them” and “us”.

        Sustained, deliberate or written expressions are a different matter of course.

        PS Freud is not really a creditable source in modern debate…a giant influence on thinking, yes, but completely incorrect on most pragmatic things.

      • 1.8T on

        Baldred, what I was kind of getting at, maybe not very clearly is that a lot of us are guilty of saying and behaving in a way in closed company (be it with friends, colleagues, team mates) that we wouldn’t out in the open. It is being highlighted as an issue in rugby but I am saying it is an issue in a wider sense. If you have never said anything offensive or that could be construed as offensive to anyone, in jest or otherwise then kudos to you but I think you are in the minority.

        I’m not referring to any particular kind of abuse, be it racial, religious, appearance or otherwise but all forms of “banter” that could be taken as offensive. You have quoted Bastareaud being called a black b*****d, calling anyone that is racist, making you racist full stop. I think (and hope) everyone agrees on that. What I am on about is less severe or “less offensive” jibes and stereotypes that can still be offensive in the wrong company. This type of behaviour can be seen as non inclusive and I fully agree with Cammy’s statement that the responsibility lies with us all. Again I don’t think it is a rugby issue, I think it is amplified in rugby because there tends to be a pack mentality which is a by product of the nature of the game.

        I think Alanyst’s 3 guidelines are pretty spot on.

      • TeamCam on

        I don’t agree with the whole Freudian analysis stuff.

        An alternative explanation: One wants to really insult another. One can go with the usual generic stuff – you can pretty offensive with off-the-shelf swearwords – but one really wants to make an impact with this, so one should add something that is more specific to recipient; something that will more likely cause additional offence by making the insult more personal and is more likely to get the desired reaction. It could be something about their weight, their race, their creed, their sexual orientation, their looks… it doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s personal and will hurt them more. It doesn’t necessarily expose a deep, repressed loathing for whatever facet you choose, it’s just a way to intensify the insult by picking something they’re likely to be sensitive about. Observing that someone is black (for example) isn’t in itself racist – you do it sub-consciously and most will adapt their behaviour in some way as a result, for example not giving the person an H&M hoodie or something – and that is something that is a key part of their identity and therefore that they’ll probably be sensitive about, so BAM! In it goes. On the other hand, one could be saying it because one’s a bigot, in which case the above doesn’t apply…

        As a Scot growing up in England, I was bullied a lot about being a ‘foreigner’. I don’t think that most those who bullied me genuinely thought or think that being Scottish is a bad thing, simply that it was a personal point of difference that could be used to intensify their insults (and it worked, to be fair to them, credit where it’s due and all that), and even those who were/are xenophobic are entitled to their beliefs. They’re just not entitled to be bullies.

        I think the nature of the abuse is less important than the fact that the abuse is occurring, and the context of the abuse is key. Is it a one-off response to an incident? Is it recurring behaviour? Is it actual (or perceived) banter? What harm was caused by the abuse? Knee-jerk reactions to taboos being broken are less important, to me at least. It’s not about discovering closet racists or homophobes and persecuting them, it’s about ensuring that people treat one another with respect. If this is truly important to rugby, then I think it should be an absolute offence with a fixed, unchangeable sanction: if you insult someone you get a two-week ban and maybe have to do a course or something. The message shouldn’t be “we do not condone homophobia”, it should be “we do not condone disrespecting others”. All in my opinion, of course.

      • Baldred NeoBisset on

        I appreciate the replies – nice debate!

        An interesting set of responses giving different reasons (excuses still?) for the use of a particular range of language (ie racist, homophobic or ‘anti-disabled’ – is there an ism for that? – rather than generically offensive).

        The only common ground is the view that much of Freud’s thinking has more or less been debunked – I am aware of that, but ‘Freudian’ is a neat shorthand that all of you immediately understood. It was never intended as a ‘source’. So, Freud still serves a purpose. ;o)

        Just going back to Freudian or otherwise, there is a big difference between my example reference to Bastareaud and, say, Jim Naughtie on R4 Today one time infamously introducing Jeremy Hunt as erm…well I’m sure you heard it. The latter is a well-known result of a verbal mix up due to the way the brain processes language. Nothing to do with how he may feel about the said Minister. That cannot be argued with my Bastareaud example or the actual incident on the pitch.

        TeamCam’s argument actually proves the point that these comments are racist, sexist or demeaning in some other way (like ‘retard’ of someone who is actually disabled – similar to the ‘downie’ comment David below mentions) because how can one construe for instance that being ‘black’ is a weakness or a sort of Achilles Heel to be targeted unless you are in fact…racist?

        I’m not sure I entirely buy Dr Love’s point about upbringing – how it started perhaps (remember Benetton’s rather poignant ad of the different babies with the ‘no racism here’ arrows pointing to each one?) but not into adulthood. As adults, we all make choices. ‘Atavistic’ explanations just don’t cut it. The logical conclusion of your can’t condemn examples it seems is if for instance someone uses homophobic language just once, you ignore it, because you hadn’t heard them do that before? The next time may not be in your earshot. To tackle them on it clearly implies you think their behaviour is wrong and reflects homophobia.

        And yes, I too like Alanyst’s set of house rules. I prefer them to notions of personal respect, lack of which may well be nothing to do with colour, gender or disability.

      • TeamCam on

        I, too, am enjoying the civilised nature of the debate. So often these things devolve into personal attacks rather than discussing the issues as equals.

        “…how can one construe for instance that being ‘black’ is a weakness or a sort of Achilles Heel to be targeted unless you are in fact…racist?”

        Surely as soon as you’re aware that racism is taboo and that people are easily offended by it, you are aware that it is a point of weakness, not in terms of inferiority or whatever, but because it is a sensitive issue. It’s not the fact that the victim is black that’s the weakness, it’s the probability that more injury can be caused by attacking that sensitivity. It’s like if someone has kids: it’s not a bad thing, but it is a vulnerability.

        “To tackle them on it clearly implies you think their behaviour is wrong and reflects homophobia.”

        Just in case I was unclear, whilst I believe people have the right to hold views that differ to mine, I also believe that others have the right to challenge those views. So if someone’s being disabledist (?) or what have you, they should expect to be challenged on it.

        “I prefer them to notions of personal respect, lack of which may well be nothing to do with colour, gender or disability”

        I agree with you to an extent, but why limit it to those things? To me the implication is that abuse or discrimination based on other traits (e.g. nationality, intelligence, dress sense) is, if not OK, certainly not as serious, and I don’t believe that should be the case. Discrimination in any guise – or, perhaps, injustice in any guise – is the issue. Of course, if I follow that through am I now arguing against not hiring someone because they’re not smart enough to do the job advertised…?

  3. Iain on

    Here here, I’m not exactly sporty (eyesight of a bat), but at Uni in England the mere idea of spending time near the rugby team was off putting enough. They had that terrible “banter” reputation. I can easily imagine the whole attitude puts lots of people off.

  4. mssvbstrd on

    An excellent article.

    My days of playing contact are far behind me, but one of the reasons I stopped well before my time was simply the general culture of the game. I found the macho [email protected] that goes hand in hand with the sport to be tedious at best, and fairly vile at its worst.

    I got back into the game a few years ago, coaching minis in their final years before they moved into S1. I recently caught up with the parents of a promising young player who had gone to secondary school. Upon getting to S1 level he fell out of love with the game and has moved on to other activities, apparently solely due to the attitude of the coach at the school; who was not above questioning the sexuality of 12 year old boys if they didn’t meet his exacting standards.

    A player lost due to the unacceptable behaviour of someone with enough age and experience to know better, and a poisonous culture seeded into the minds of impressionable young players.

    I think that this culture is gradually changing. The vast majority of parents, coaches and players I meet seem to be fairly well-adjusted people who love the sport and espouse and exhibit is best aspects. Unfortunately dinosaurs (of all ages) still roam the sidelines, clubhouses and changing rooms of the sport and in my experience their attitudes and behaviours are all too often left unchallenged.

    • JP on

      I love rugby, loved every minute on the pitch and miss it tremendously but I quit for the reasons you described. It can be horrible and in my experience those who don’t agree is because they are in the circle. I don’t belive it to be inclusive at all. I found at all four of my clubs before quitting that the respect we talk about so much applied more to the opponents while we would be running hard at each other than team mates.

  5. JohnnyJJohnstone on

    One of the things I detest about rugby (a game I otherwise love) is its hypocritical snobbishness towards football. Footballers and football fans are supposedly morally weak scumbags who dive, cheat, hurl abuse at and fight each other, for which I have always thought you may read “its core support and player base is drawn from the working class whereas we are middle class and therefore superior”.
    We need to get over it because there’s a culture of drinking, hazing and bullying in rugby which stems all the way from its grass roots. Most people nowadays think it’s offensive to make someone drink a pint of urine while singing a song about having drunken sex with the 1st XV Captain’s sister who turned out to be a transgender and homosexual just because they are the youngest person in the team, but anyone who has been involved in grass roots rugby knows that sort of thing abounds and is seen as amusing essential team building.
    I attend premier league football games, and generally the fans are well behaved if sometimes rowdy, and many of the players have dragged themselves up from penurious upbringings to reach the pinnacle of a universal, global sport.
    They deserve more respect than is given by most rugby nuts and we rugby fans and former players for our part ought to take a long hard look at ourselves and recognise and address our own shortcomings. If we don’t we will close the game off to a majority of people who don’t find such behaviours acceptable.
    This culture is bottom up and that’s where it needs to be addressed.

  6. David on

    Great article.

    One of the reasons I left my old club in the West of the country was the former head coach (and SRU employee) referring to an opposition centre as ‘a bit of a downie’.

    Sadly, all too common.

    • Stu on

      If you’d actually called out the head coach for saying that you might have made a difference. Instead you walked away – what was the point of that?

      • JP on

        Easy said on your keyboard but standing up to an SRU coach in front of a team of rugby players to defend the honour of the disabled isn’t an easy thing to do.

  7. Stu on

    When I completed the survey I couldn’t help feeling the questions were rather loaded – for example I have experienced behaviour I thought unacceptable on a bus, in a tea shop, in a newsagent.

    There is no doubt rugby clubs are raucous places – but in my experience is night and day now in comparison to what it was like 25/30yrs ago. For a start players drink far far less than back then – much more focused on health and fitness.

    Whether we like it or not rugby clubs are as much a reflection of society as any other club or establishment – lets not beat ourselves up too much when some of the members turn out to be bigots, homophobes and drunken boors.

  8. Bulldog on

    Well done for raising awareness of this incident. Anything that is against the law or infringes civil rights is wrong in the UK , including rugby and football grounds/ clubs.

    The environment has hardened towards all forms of discrimination, everywhere and you either adapt or die.

    Bastareaud overstepped the mark for what is considered acceptable and that should be dealt with. The incidents in Fife are a criminal matter. I hope both matters are dealt with fairly and lessons are learned.

    There is some good comments on rugby club behaviours. Most organisations have codes of conduct. There is always bias, cliques and if your face doesn’t fit, it is sadly harsh. I would like to say Rugby is different but it is not.

    Some may not have made it if their ‘faither didny drink with the committee ‘and sway the odd decision. Maybe they would , maybe they wouldn’t, but you know what, that does happen.

    I am hard against favouritism. Our game , like football, suffers from good young players being frozen out by nepotism in the junior years. The only way we can change that is to get out there and do the job ourselves.

    I ,for one will not, I have so much more in my life, so maybe I am not as passionate about it as I should be, however I do applaud those decent , honest blokes out there making a difference and doing it right.

  9. Ade on

    Thanks Cammy for highlighting this on the blog and putting together the survey. It’s not an easy topic to broach, and as we’ve seen recently there are unpleasant undercurrents running through society at all levels, sport included as the survey shows. While it’s disappointing that the Bastareaud incident seems to have been handled badly, it is heartening that the former player mentioned recognised that his previous behaviour and comments were part of the problem, and put his hand up as a positive agent for change going forward.

    When you have highly divisive issues such as Brexit in this country, or Donald Trump in the US, it doesn’t take long for these undercurrents to come to the surface. While we would want to forego any discriminatory language, perhaps we have less in sport than in society as a whole? Rugby culture is flawed, but is it as homophobic as, for example, a Britain First meeting? I know that is not comparing like for like, but rugby (and sport in general) gives us the opportunity to move outside our comfort zone by meeting new people, new cultures, new attitudes. When the behaviour of our sporting society crosses the line we should, where we can, challenge it. I appreciate that can’t always be done, for a variety of valid reasons, as described by David and JP above, but every time it happens it nudges our society in the right direction.

    I also think that the young have a huge amount of power in this regard. My wife’s nephew, at around age 15, told his Grandad that he (Grandad) was the most racist person he knew. Grandad was appalled and hurt, but you could see where the kid was coming from – none of his peers would say the things his Grandad did, and Grandad did occasionally say things that would be perfectly acceptable when he was 15, but weren’t now. By calling this out it meant that Grandad looked at his behaviour, and eventually accepted that he probably *was* the most racist person his grandson knew – just by virtue of being an old man, who had learned a different set of standards as a child. Unfortunately it’s not a quick process.

    There’s a part of me that (sort of) looks forward to either of my boys telling me that I am the most racist/sexist person that they know – because that will mean that they and their peers have set higher standards for themselves and society. I think that rugby can do the same, and I believe that we all have the power to make that happen. The former player mentioned is an good example – he recognised that his previous behaviour and comments were part of the problem, and put his hand up as a positive agent for change going forward.

    • Baldred NeoBisset on

      Good post! Apparently I need another 5 characters for my response to publish. Ten isn’t enough! Should be enough now!

  10. David Mill on

    The world is full of hypocrites who, when they have a soap box, say what they think everyone wants to hear not what they actually believe. Views and attitudes change over time but really only change over a generation.
    Who knows what we do now will be deemed as unacceptable in 30/40 years. Eating meat?

    • FF on

      Not quite sure what you’re getting at. You don’t think racist or homophobic language should be taboo, even in public spaces like a televised rugby match?

      Attitudes do change over time. A hundred years ago the ideology of the political and social elites (and even scientific) across Europe believed in white racial supremacy, upheld sexual morality based on religious beliefs and thought people’s class was determined by their moral worth. Most people would say the direction of travel since then is progress!

  11. Joey Jo Jo Junior Shabadoo on

    2 years for what Bastareaud did? Come off it!

    He shouldn’t have done what he did, it damaged the image of the game, etc, but 2 years seems somewhat out of kilter with significantly shorter bans for violent conduct.

    I think maybe the disciplinary code should be re-examined, with a separate category for offences of Bastareaud’s/ Marler’s nature. Similar to, say, contact with the eyes, there could be an entry level of 12 weeks or whatever, and for repeat offenders it could go as high as you like.

    Anyway, interesting article and a good one to reflect on before a tournament where we differentiate ourselves from others on the grounds of nationality.

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