This post could be misinterpreted as schadenfreude but I assure you, it is not. It is, in fact, prompted by dismay at the England rugby team’s response to their boys behaving badly while on World Cup duty.
First we had newly-wed Mike Tindall slavering over a mystery blonde, like a poacher’s dog as some might say. It is only now that Mr Tindall has managed to recollect that not only did he visit one pub with the woman whose breasts he was spotted nuzzling on camera, but he accompanied her to another. At the time, the matter was of interest largely because of whom Tindall is married to, than out of any concern for his inappropriate behaviour and everyone closed ranks and poo-poohed the incident.
Then, this weekend, it emerged that three more players had been caught out. A hotel worker was so upset at being harassed by them with lewd, and indeed libidinous, remarks that she reported the incident. Martin Johnson, the team coach, who previously had defended Tindall’s conduct, was angered by this trio’s conduct. “They have been disciplined. They have been reprimanded for their behaviour and left in no doubt.” Uh huh… “If you leave yourself open for these headlines to be written it drags us all into it and that is what makes me particularly angry.”
Oh right. So it wasn’t the fact that the players alarmed and humiliated a young woman who was only doing her job with abusive behaviour – abusive in so many ways, not least because of the power play at work – but because it damaged the reputation of the whole team, a view reinforced by former player, Jeremy Guscott.
Another player’s remarks serve to underscore all that is rotten at the core of this team. Mark Cueto commented: “It is a reality check that such a small thing can be made into such a massive deal. As a group of players we have spoken about it with and without the management. We know exactly where we are at now and I am sure there will be no more stories like that to come out.”
Where is the remorse? Where is the acknowledgement that men abusing women verbally and in any other way is utterly unacceptable? That any small thing is in fact a massive deal. And that the massive deal is not such stories leaking out but the fact that such behaviour is taking place at all. All the commentary laments how unhelpful it has been for such stories to be appearing, with a nod of concern for rumours of indiscipline in the England camp. But not one jot, not one single condemnation, not one person distancing themselves from the culture that exists within this team in terms of its treatment of and attitudes to women. Indeed, Mark Cueto suggested it has all been “blown out of proportion”.
Sadly, such contempt of women is all too common in modern day sport. England’s rugby players are treading a well worn path in football. This is not to suggest that somehow this is England’s problem, for this is a global phenomenon, particularly prevalent in sport. That women are fair game, little more than trophies, lumps of meat to be prized only as sexual beings. The more wealth that exists in sports like rugby and football, the worse the problem seems to be. And while we have campaigns to show racism the red card, no one seems willing to suggest that sexism towards women has no place in modern day sport. The suits are just as happy to brush off such incidents as laddish banter with few men involved in sport’s highest echelons prepared to speak out and take responsibility, as a man, for other men’s violence towards and abuse of women.
Yet, in the USA, efforts are underway to address this. The bystander approach has a proven track record at tackling gender violence and bullying prevention. The approach stems from the desire to move away from a flawed premise relating to violence, that people have only two options: get involved and risk personal harm, or to do nothing. Unsurprisingly, most people choose to do nothing – they walk away, they do not challenge inappropriate behaviour, they do not protest. The bystander approach empowers people to take a stand, to confront abusive peers and support abused ones.
And – get this – it started life in the world of sport in a handful of American universities. The MVP – Mentors in Violence Programme – runs leadership courses, led by former professional and university athletes, motivates student athletes and leaders to play a central role in addressing issues traditionally viewed as “women’s” problems, such as sexual and domestic violence. Why sport? Because sportspeople are seen as role models and leaders. And also because those working in domestic violence frequently faced “apathy, defensiveness – and sometimes outright hostility – of male athletic directors, coaches, and student-athletes. While men and young men in the school-based athletic subculture have hardly been unique in their reluctance to embrace gender violence prevention education, they typically occupy a privileged position in school culture, and particularly in male peer culture. As such, male student-athletes – especially in popular team sports such as football, basketball, hockey, baseball, wrestling, and soccer – tend to have enormous clout when it comes to establishing or maintaining traditional masculine norms. Their support or lack of support for prevention efforts can make or break them.”
Fortunately, Scotland is beginning to acknowledge the need to do more to prevent violence and is importing the bystander approach, with pilot projects starting soon. Frankly, with the kind of rotten conduct on display in New Zealand from England rugby players, it couldn’t happen soon enough. The burd wonders if sport – especially rugby and football – will accept the challenge to change its ways, if encouraged to embrace the approach and the programme. Until it does, expect more media reports of boys behaving badly.