Rugby, violence, and athlete privilege: The importance of asking difficult questions about NZ's sporting cultures

The following commentary is provided by School of Social and Cultural Studies lecturer Dr Lynzi Armstrong.

Despite the numerous on-field successes for New Zealand rugby this year, the behaviour of some of its players and officials off the field has raised tough questions about our country’s sporting culture. Cases of violence towards others and mistreatment of women by some of New Zealand’s rugby players have led to limited repercussions. A national conversation regarding why these events occurred, and how they may be addressed, is long overdue.

The most recent example of problematic behaviour off the field is the case of an 18 -year-old Wellington rugby player who was discharged without conviction following assaults on four people. This result met with mixed reactions, one being disbelief and anger that a young man has escaped punishment, apparently to salvage his promising rugby career. Another perspective is that prison would do very little for this young man, and that the opportunity to excel in rugby may enable him to change his life for the better.

This case has attracted a lot of attention in New Zealand, but it is not unique. Numerous cases internationally have highlighted the potential for male athletes to perpetrate violence and to go unpunished, or have their behaviour minimised or excused. For instance, the case of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner who served three months of six -month jail sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman. And repeated references to the ‘promising careers’ of two football players in Steubenville Ohio, convicted of rape in 2013. This also isn’t the first time in recent years that a rugby player in New Zealand has been involved in violence and has escaped conviction. In early 2016 another young rugby player was discharged without conviction following an assault in a local bar.  And another in 2015. And another in 2014.

The suggestion that a successful rugby career may provide an opportunity for this young man to turn his life around is an interesting one. Sport undoubtedly has the potential to be transformative and positive in people’s lives, but it can also have a darker side. Rugby is a violent sport. It is a sport in which a particular type of masculinity, which prizes toughness and aggression, is celebrated. A number of studies have highlighted an apparent relationship between participation in some sports and male violence, particularly violence towards women. This is not to say that sports participation ‘causes’ violence, and of course, the majority of male athletes are not violent. However, some sports (specifically contact sports) can foster peer cultures in which violence is normalised, at least to some extent. There is, therefore, something rather contradictory about the suggestion that rugby may provide the solution to this young man’s problems. However, prison is also an unhelpful course of action, as a setting that is also characterised by toughness, aggression and hypermasculinity. Nevertheless, athletic talent should not enable individuals to perpetrate violence with impunity.

Cases such as this are understandably wrought with emotion – the unfairness of the outcome, the lack of accountability, and the significant and enduring impacts on the victims. However, such cases also provide an important opportunity for reflection. New Zealand has a history of excelling in rugby. New Zealand also has one of the most appalling records of violence against women in the OECD.  While the question of what punishment this individual should have received is a relevant one – there are bigger questions that merit attention regarding why this occurred in the first place. First, it is important to think critically about the impact of a cultural infatuation with rugby and the celebratisation of rugby players. And second, it is important to ask uncomfortable questions regarding what aspects of our prized sporting cultures may contribute to violence, and how this may be addressed.

However, while cases such as these help to expose problematic and harmful aspects of some sport cultures, they also offer opportunities for positive change.  In Australia, earlier this year, four major sporting codes committed to implementing interventions to take a stand against violence, and specifically violence against women. It would be valuable to see similar steps being taken in New Zealand. However, doing so requires that sporting codes take some responsibility for the problem, and appropriately hold players to account who do perpetrate violence. Until such positive change occurs it remains likely that history will continue to repeat itself and that some male athletes will continue to be implicated in violence, instead of taking a strong stance against it.

This was originally published in The New Zealand Herald on 30 September 2016.