Jo Mathers: Quitting rugby and its dark underbelly

Our national sport is lurching from one scandal to another, putting alcohol, violence and attitudes to women under the spotlight. Today, one female fan tells why she’s giving the game away.
Unless things change significantly I'm not buying into this game any more. Photo / Michael Craig
Unless things change significantly I'm not buying into this game any more. Photo / Michael Craig

• Jo Mathers is an Auckland writer.

My son was born late last year and among his mountain of presents was an All Blacks jumper.

"Cute," I thought. "He can wear it when we watch our first game together on the telly."

But now I doubt I'll ever pull his chubby arms through those tight black sleeves because I have decided to boycott rugby.

And I urge the rest of you to do the same.

Most of you will scoff at the suggestion. Boycotting rugby - our national religion, the epitome to Kiwi "can do" - may seem ridiculous. It's the backbone of our rugged, down and dirty cultural identity, a sport that brings the nation together for brief moments of social cohesion.

I don't deny its power to unite, but recent events have cast rugby's reality in a stark light.

It unites us in violence and sexism. It unites us in denial and victimisation. And I can't pretend I don't care anymore.

Scarlette started it. The stripper hired for the Chiefs' "Mad Monday" celebration claimed to have had gravel thrown at her, to have been the object of obscene language and acts of lewdness.

An internal investigation by New Zealand Rugby found "no evidence" to support her accusations.

She was told that, as a stripper, she should expect nothing more from the Chiefs' players. They're red-blooded rugby blokes on a party night, what did she expect?

Believe her or not, the actions of New Zealand Rugby are galling. And much of the public reaction to Scarlette has been even worse.

Margaret Comer - spokes­women for the Chiefs' main sponsor, Gallagher Group - summed up much of the sentiment.

"I am reluctant to say that the boys were out of line. If a woman takes her clothes off and walks around in a group of men, what are we supposed to do if one of them tries to touch her?" she said.

"It's not nice and perhaps the stripper shouldn't have been hired, but I'm reluctant to say that the boys were out of line."

She offered an apology the next day for her "poor choice of words".

This week, there's the issue of Losi Filipo, the Wellington Lions player who bashed up four young people - two men, two women - late one night last October.

Losi Filipo bashed up four young people. Photo / Getty Images
Losi Filipo bashed up four young people. Photo / Getty Images

The 18-year-old punched one woman in the face, leaving her in a crumpled and bloody heap. He beat one man so badly it ended his rugby playing days and left him incapacitated and unable to work full-time.

A second woman was punched in the throat. Filipo took turns with his brother to hold and beat up the other man in the group.

But the judge discharged Filipo without conviction.

Soon after, the Wellington Lions issued a late-night press statement claiming they didn't condone violence but were continuing to support their young player.

Cue media storm, social media outrage and such huge public pressure that "by mutual agreement" Filipo was dropped from the team. But not for forever. Read between the lines of their most recent press release.

"Wellington Rugby believes the best outcome for society would be for Losi to remain involved in the game of rugby."

There were late apologies from NZ Rugby to the victims and on Thursday the Crown Law Office said approval had been given for police to appeal the sentence. But for me, nothing changes. I'm calling it quits.

By saying goodbye to rugby I'm ending a family tradition. I'm waving farewell to a game that my Welsh grandfather worshipped and many of my family still adore. I can't pretend it's okay any more.

I can no longer support a game that seemingly sweeps so much thuggery under the carpet.

I'll miss the nights shouting at the TV willing a penalty kick to snake through the posts. But I can no longer support a game that seemingly sweeps so much thuggery under the carpet.

Apparently it has always been like this. Ex-rugby player Shane Kenny says it was worse in the bad old days. "Having heard stories of what went in the 60s, 70s and 80s (including behaviour of some at the highest level), I actually think the behaviour might be getting better," he tells me.

Kenny played rugby at various levels from age 5 until 33. But he didn't like much of what he saw. "The culture was a lot of drinking and bravado," he says.

"I saw and heard things that disturbed me over the years, from drinking to unconsciousness, violence, and mistreatment of women."

He no longer plays rugby and isn't a keen supporter. "I don't go out of my way to watch it any more. In the past I would go to provincial games and test matches. There is just so much rugby everywhere, it gets tedious."

New Zealand Rugby has a lot to answer for. It is the custodian of the culture. It takes the glory for our wins, so it should take the blame when things go wrong.

Until recently it has been conspicuous by its absence in debates around off-field vileness.

In the age of social media it can't afford to stay silent, but its "apologies" for player misdeeds have been weak and unconvincing.

Chief executive Steve Tew always seemed a decent bloke, but he has lost my vote.

His attempted apology for the behaviour of the Chiefs sounded to me as though he felt the players were misguided but that they didn't really do anything too bad.

Chief executive Steve Tew always seemed a decent bloke, but he has lost my vote. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Chief executive Steve Tew always seemed a decent bloke, but he has lost my vote. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He was away when the Filipo scandal broke, leaving general manager Neil Sorenson to apologise for not acting quicker.

It was only on Wednesday, under pressure from broadcaster Paul Henry in a TV interview, that Tew promised to contact the victims.

And then there's the elephant in the room - alcohol.

Rugby and alcohol go hand in hand, as do violence and alcohol. Auckland University of Technology senior PR lecturer Avarill Gordon says New Zealand Rugby should take a lead on issues around problem drinking.

"They have an enormous social responsibility because rugby culture is so closely tied to New Zealand culture overall," she says. "If people's heroes drink heavily, they will see no issue with drinking heavily as well."

She says the old "rugby, racing and beer" mentality doesn't cut it.

"New Zealand is a brand internationally. People will start to lose respect for the brand if things don't change. The 'play hard/drink hard' culture and the behaviour of players off the field will start to undermine the attitude towards our country."

The establishment is feeling the pressure and it shows. Sir John Kirwan apologised on TVNZ's Breakfast for the Filipo case, stating: "What has happened has been horrible for the game and we need to stand up and take responsibility for it."

Former All Black Norman Hewitt has also spoken out, saying New Zealand Rugby needs to start doing things differently.

Sharyn Aargh and her partner, Dwayne McLeod, agree.

They have seen it all before. McLeod was a victim of street violence perpetrated by a Wellington player as well - but this was 20 years ago.

Back then he was a professional BMXer. He found himself on the receiving end of a beating that left him hospitalised after a night out. He didn't know it at the time but the aggressor was a young rugby star with a "promising future".

In the wake of the Chiefs stripper scandal, New Zealand Rugby asked for help from experienced anti-sexual violence advocate Louise Nicholas. Photo / Michael Craig
In the wake of the Chiefs stripper scandal, New Zealand Rugby asked for help from experienced anti-sexual violence advocate Louise Nicholas. Photo / Michael Craig

Aargh and McLeod now don't go into town on a rugby night because there is always trouble.

"The fans go to get into fights, not to have fun," says McLeod.

Neither of them like the culture, they are sick of the perceived thuggery and attitude to women.

"I'm really little, just 5 foot 1," says Aargh. "On rugby nights I would always get harassed by drunk guys. Dwayne is tall and he would get up and defend me and then the aggression would begin."

They say this aggression is only apparent on rugby nights.

"When the Football Under-17 World Cup was on there was a great atmosphere in town," Aargh says.

"But when a big rugby game is on you don't want to be around the stadium."

She says even though her entire family are players and supporters, she's sick to death of rugby culture.

"The culture is awful. I wish the game and the culture weren't so intertwined. The game itself is fine, but the entitlement of the players is horrific."

Aargh also feels there is not enough leadership around off-field behaviour - and she says parents on the sideline should be setting better examples.

"All those mums and dads shouting at their 8 and 10-year-olds should also be setting themselves up to manage themselves in public."

So what is NZ Rugby doing to change things? Tew issued me with a statement around their recent run of bad publicity.

It said, in part: "We are worried that too many of our players are making poor decisions and not living by the values we aspire to.

"We want people to be proud of this game."

In the wake of the Chiefs stripper scandal, New Zealand Rugby asked for help from experienced anti-sexual violence advocate Louise Nicholas.

The organisation also sought advice from Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue.

Tew's statement said New Zealand Rugby has a full-time education manager who recently ran sessions during a Top Four schools' competition, where 200 young players were taught about the value of good character and how this was important to their careers in and outside rugby.

These are good things, undoubtedly.

But it reeks of too little, too late. Maybe change will come one day, but until then my son's All Blacks jumper will remain folded up neatly in the drawer.

Because unless things change significantly I'm not buying into this game any more.

- Herald on Sunday

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