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Op-ed: So What Does Rugby in the USA Stand For?

USA at 2015 World Cup, Silly Meme

I’ve seen the image shared a few times and thought it was…let’s say silly. It did raise questions though.  Why would we see protest as a negative, or even more laughably an opportunity to grab market share from the NFL; when it is a part of our rugby tradition? Especially around social justice, and race specifically? NFL Athletes in the USA have captivated the sports world in a provocative demonstration forcing we the sports public to examine our values and beliefs. Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett, Megan Rapinoe, Shannon Sharpe, Lebron James and many others have been the voice of some to the discomfort of others.  The USA Rugby community is a small place, and there are no shortage of strong opinions (political or otherwise). Rebellion against what some consider to be politically correct culture appears to be at odds with the direction USA Rugby as a whole says it would like to go.

Maybe it is the difference between sport, sport culture, and sports entertainment.  Sports are played by human beings, with agency, emotions, opinions, and individual identities.  Sports entertainment is provided by a complex of markets, owners, brands, companies, technology, policies, products, and images.  Sport culture is where we all participate in some or all of the aforementioned two.  Understandably, politics and a 24 hour news cycle come with a sense of mental fatigue were many seek escape and see sport and sports entertainment as just that.  However, the belief that sports and sport culture should be separated from politics is  funny, and not rooted in historical fact.  Sport has been a tool of diplomacy since Ancient Greece.  Didier Drogba was able to stop civil war as a member of Cote D’Ivoire’s soccer team.  Did we forget the role rugby played with regard to apartheid in South Africa?

A bit of history:

“..The apartheid political system in South Africa for most of the twentieth century did not allow people of different races to play sport together, and therefore South African officials requested that Māori players not be included in sides which toured their country. Despite some of New Zealand‘s best players being Māori, this was agreed to, and Māori were excluded from tours of South Africa. Some Māori always objected to this, but it did not become a major issue until 1960, when there were several public protests at Māori exclusion from that year’s tour. ” (wikipedia).

These protests came to a head in 1969, the group Halt All Racist Tours was founded in New Zealand.  They were not alone as the cause was gaining international attention. In 1981 South Africa booked match against the USA’s Midwest All-Stars. The match was originally slated for Chicago, but to avoid protesters; they drove to Racine, Wisconsin . As we anticipate the next leg of The Rugby Championship, the Springboks host the Wallabies. The grumblings of transformation are a continued part of the Springbok discussion as a nation deals with the damage its racist past has caused and it’s most prominent brand.

Makes you think doesn’t it? Players, teams and unions withholding their participation, World Rugby (Then IRB) withholding sanctions; it was almost like racism was something not to be tolerated.  So pardon my confusion when I see photos like the one above circulating in our community. It makes me wonder, what do we stand for? Since when have rugby players avoided discomfort, or confrontation? For all the self-congratulations we engage in for playing this sport, it might be time we look at ourselves and hold ourselves to better account.  If we want to be popular, these issues will not go away.  Are we on the right side of history? Would we protest an Apartheid of today? Or would we avoid ‘politics’? Where would USA Rugby stand? It goes beyond racism. If you ask the women of our sport; do they feel included? Have we invested in making them feel included? Our most successful international side, has done so with an embarrassing lack of investment and virtually no representation in World Rugby or USA Rugby leadership.  The USA Rugby audit is out, so read for yourselves where we are currently; things are, to quote former USA Head Coach Kathy Flores, “not great”.

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