Scotty Stevenson: Sideline abuse a serious issue

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The Wellington Rugby Union confirmed today that actors were used in a video that had All Black Victor Vito go undercover as a referee to expose sideline abuse.
The Wellington Rugby Union confirmed today that actors were used in a video that had All Black Victor Vito go undercover as a referee to expose sideline abuse.

You just can't win in this world. Just ask Wellington Rugby, after a video the organisation made to highlight what poor sideline behaviour at kids' rugby looks like has been condemned for their use of actors.

The video, widely re-published by news organisations - including this one - seemingly with no questions asked, shows Wellington and Hurricanes players Victor Vito, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Reggie Goodes don disguises to referee a youth rugby game at Petone.

During the match, one spectator in particular is seen to be hurling abuse both at the children and the refereeing team. His face is pixelated. Wellington rugby confirmed today this man was an actor. Now the merit of the entire undertaking has been questioned.

That question misses the point. More pertinent is this one: At what point did any other parent or club official at that game ask the man in question to stop? One social media post published in the New Zealand Herald today read: "Actors were brought in to actually PUSH and coerce those watching the game in to reacting the way they are reported to have done ...

"Does that mean other parents were happy to engage in the same behaviour rather than shut it down? Were they happy to be 'coerced'?

This afternoon Radio Sport host Kent Johns asked how hard it would have been for Wellington Rugby to go and find some 'real' abusive parents to shame. The answer to that is, probably not very hard at all. Last month, volunteer football referee Matt Weldon-Smith tweeted, "I am never refereeing College Sport Wellington football again. Got near 90 mins of abuse from parents."

I realise Mr Weldon-Smith is talking about a different sport but to hear some claim that there are not similar problems in rugby, or that the use of actors in this video somehow minimises the effectiveness of the campaign, beggars belief. This is a problem everywhere in New Zealand, has been for a long time, and good on Wellington Rugby for highlighting how ugly it can be.

From a marketing point of view, it would be a shame for this campaign to backfire on the organisers, but undoubtedly it could have been better framed. They could have told us upfront they sent actors into the game to show just how ugly sideline abuse is. That they allowed the public to think these 'parents' were real, was arguably a mistake.

However, we were all happy to believe they were real parents, weren't we? No questions asked. Doesn't that just show how conditioned to sideline abuse we have all become? Doesn't that in itself prove that this is an actual issue, one to be taken seriously?

Let's stay on point here: these risible people are at games up and down the country, every single weekend, and they are not acting.

In a post from Avalon supporter Nina Meteka, also published in the New Zealand Herald, Nina writes, "there were a lot more positive spectators at that game than those throwing abuse". That is entirely believable. Those who engage in this type of behaviour are, mercifully, in the minority but any minority in this case is too big. Zero tolerance must be the only goal.

I was fortunate enough to watch an under-10 game in Wellington two weekends ago. My little mate George White and his friends ran around on the muddy, wind-swept pitch at Ian Galloway Park to a chorus of encouragement from coaches and parents alike. It was as supportive and collegial a morning as I could have wished for, but that should be the expectation at kids' sport, shouldn't it?

The Wellington Rugby video did not focus on the positive behaviour of parents because, as an organisation, that is their expectation, too. It was the goal of this campaign to show people how not to behave during a kids' rugby match, and in that I believe they have succeeded.

It would be wrong to attack the integrity of the organisation in this instance. The imperfection of the campaign should not outweigh its importance. It strikes me that the reason people are so upset now is because suddenly they have no one to form a shame pile on.

Trust me, that's no real loss, but missing the point would be.

- NZ Herald

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