Rugby is, and always has been, about far more than simply the 80 minutes of weekly playing time. Banter, humour and club traditions form part of bonding processes integral to any successful team. From Nigel Wray taking the Saracens squad on an annual holiday, to the average post-match drink at the local club, these practices are consistent across all levels of the game, and they can provide players with a huge sense of belonging and identity.
Throughout rugby, it is widely accepted that to battle alongside one another on the pitch you have to get along with each other off it. Friendships, loyalties and shared memories play a central role in motivating and socialising a team. If you have been out together, and feel comfortable saying what you think, when you think it, then clarity of communication between teammates on the pitch is inevitably easier to cultivate. However, recent issues have forced rugby to undertake a process of reflection, and force itself to assess what is decent, tolerable behaviour, and what is not.
The case of Paddy Jackson and his Ulster teammates, for instance, demonstrates the potential perils of the sport’s banter culture. Regardless of the not guilty verdict, the language used in their WhatsApp conversation was widely condemned as demeaning, degrading and abhorrent. As Suzanne More stated unambiguously: “these men are not rapists, but they are guilty of vile misogyny.” Banter and mickey-taking in group chats are increasingly part and parcel of being part of a team. However, there reaches a point when such a private environment as a closed group chat can be seen to encourage statements that would be completely unacceptable in public. For rugby then, the broader trial revealed by Paddy Jackson’s incident is not just that of rape in a Belfast court room, but the game’s reputation in wider society. Public opinion can be damning, in this instance deservedly so, and incidents such as Paddy Jackson’s rape trial undermine the sport’s traditionally dignified, inclusive and respectful image.
They are also detrimental to rugby’s participation figures. The RFU estimates that 10,000 school aged players have dropped out of the game after reaching university age, a figure that they attribute, in part, to “totally unacceptable” initiation ceremonies. There have been a series of tragic deaths from such initiations over the last decade, as well as a string of incidents involving hypothermia, blatant racism and the vandalism of public property.
That said, to entirely eradicate the ‘lad culture’ element of rugby would be impossible, and also unnatural and unwanted. In her academic study into the link between banter and rugby, Katherine Nicolls highlights the importance of the relationship between “masculinity and humour,” as well as the role of good-natured verbal conflict in the changing room in aiding cohesion on the pitch. Social interactions in any environment, from school to the workplace, revolve around humour. Rugby is no exception, and ‘taking the piss’ can, as Nicolls establishes, be extremely positive, leading to the breaking down of personal barriers and a positive process of engaging with personal insecurities. Crucially though, as well as being useful in the exercise of team building, humour and camaraderie are most importantly fun, and people play sport to enjoy themselves. What rugby, and rugby players, need to assess then, is what elements of this process are beneficial and what are counterproductive, what is banter and what is bullying, and, ultimately, what is acceptable? The first step, however, is starting the conversation, and trying to establish what our sport wants to be.
Written by Joe Ronan