Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Rugby is dancing around women

Reintroducing cheerleaders seems a strange way for the Blues to promote diversity. 
Photo / Photosport
Reintroducing cheerleaders seems a strange way for the Blues to promote diversity. Photo / Photosport

After New Zealand rugby endured its Year from Hell in 2016, discovering a widespread culture of misogyny, tonight at North Harbour Stadium there will be girls in skimpy outfits dancing for the pleasure of a mostly male crowd.

As hard as some of the game's administrators are trying to drag attitudes out of the dark ages and drive females into executive and governance roles, while helping educate players about respecting women, progress remains slow and difficult.

Last week, the Blues players wore coloured laces as part of New Zealand Rugby's wider campaign to promote diversity and say that it is a game for everyone - both genders, all backgrounds, all religions and all sexual persuasions.

The Blues, domiciled in New Zealand's most cosmopolitan city, have managed, in just seven days, to turn back the clock to an era so many are trying to leave behind, by reintroducing an all-female cheerleading squad as part of their pre-game entertainment package.

Not that the Blues are willing to say this is what they have done. In their world, they have welcomed a dance troupe on the basis it is a bona fide sport and potential profession.

And yet while it is true that dancing requires supreme athleticism, dedication and commitment, when it is performed out of context as an obvious subsidiary to the main event and to an audience that has paid to watch a contest defined by the brutality, resilience and extreme physicality of the male protagonists, then it takes on a different connotation.

It becomes the worst sort of gender stereotyping. The men are the main event, worshipped and revered for their muscularity, bravery and commitment; the women, afforded a token role, are there to be enjoyed for their outfits, hair and make-up.

The truth, whether the Blues want to wake up to it or not, is that dance troupes at Super Rugby games make most adult women cringe and at some level wonder what sort of messages it sends young men.

Single sex schools remain the lifeblood of New Zealand rugby and principals and teachers say they fight an endless battle to tone down the culture of hero worshipping those in the First XV.

More recently it has come to light how hard it is for boys at single sex schools to learn about appropriate and respectful relationships given the proliferation of digital pornography.

These issues are real. They are live, evolving, and educators and parents fear for the hard wiring in young male minds. New Zealand Rugby, hammered throughout last year for its cumbersome response to a raft of abusive incidents involving male players, has made diversity and inclusiveness a priority issue.

It has acknowledged that as the governing body of a sport that touches hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, it must be a leader in the example it sets and has finally appointed a female board member.

Of course, they can't stop there, but at least the realisation has been made that rugby has the power to influence, both positively and negatively, in everything it does.

That's why there is an uneasiness and awkwardness that a week after New Zealand Super Rugby diversity celebrations, Auckland will carry subliminal messages of gender superiority, that the Blues, try as they have, can't justify.

A spokesperson says: "The Blues are in the sport and entertainment industry and must look for wider appeal than only the traditional rugby follower as our region becomes more diverse in make-up.

"Part of that diversity is entertainment from dance troupes, which is a bona fide sport and profession for young people. Baxter Dance sought auditions - and not a single male dancer applied.

"The group approached the Blues about this opportunity, perform at no charge, raise sponsorship for their own outfits, and are planning to incorporate males into the troupe in the future."

In this quest to find the non-traditional rugby follower, the Blues might have overlooked the fact that rugby, through an ingrained culture of beer, pies and phenomenally complex rules, has never managed to hold much spectator appeal for females.

But now that there are close to 22,000 women playing rugby in New Zealand and it's slowly being embedded as a sport with career pathways and opportunities, more females want to connect with it.

All-female dance troupes, and the negative perceptions they endorse of rugby having a problem with respect and inclusiveness, are a barrier to the Blues having the wider appeal they covet.

Stunning athletes and role models such as Sarah Goss, Kayla McAlister and Tyla Nathan-Wong - who fought their way to a silver medal at last year's Olympics - must despair that dancing girls are seen as part of the entertainment package to sell rugby.

They, like others, must wonder why a team such as the Blues continues to have difficulties understanding how thousands of women and men might fail to see the athleticism and career opportunities that potentially await a dance troupe, and instead see underdressed young women performing for the delectation and objectification of others.

After all, how would the world react if either of Auckland's two professional netball teams, the Mystics and Northern Stars, opted to use shirtless young male dancers in tight shorts as part of their entertainment offering, justifying it with the same argument of needing to win new followers?

As the Blues acknowledge, there are hundreds of entertainment options from which they can choose to promote at their games. So why pick the one they have?

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

Read more by Gregor Paul
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 27 May 2017 10:59:41 Processing Time: 558ms