Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An Open Letter to Male Rugby Players

I remember heading down to a basement in one of the buildings just off campus, maybe still a little dehydrated from the game, definitely still a little sore from the game. We played drinking games and sang songs. The drinking games were played by all types and groups of college students, but the songs were just for us, secret songs known only to rugby players. (Maybe a few known only to St. Mike's ruggers.) The drinking games, the nicknames, the songs, the rituals; all of these are why the rugby team felt more like a community than a team, why rugby players form lifelong connections with their teammates. I've played a lot of different sports and for a lot of different teams and none of them forged the connection like the rugby team and a big part of that connection was the drinking, the rituals, the nicknames, and the songs.

Some of those songs depict sexual assault.

In isolation, no one could take those songs seriously. They are sung in a very specific context. The violence is ridiculous, even cartoonish, and most of it is designed to explicitly test the bounds of taste, to be vulgar for vulgarity's sake, to be something you would never, ever say in public, to be more like a secret handshake that declares membership in a club than anything else. But they are not sung in isolation.

They are sung in the world where a man can brag about sexual assault and still be elected President of the United States; a world where powerful men can abuse women for decades and face no consequences; a world in which, as #MeToo has shown (here and here), virtually every woman in America has faced some form of harassment and/or assault.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

Don't get me wrong. I know rugby songs seems like a pretty small part of the problem of misogyny, but, given that I'm speaking to a group of men some of us, whether we know it or not, are occasional or serial harassers, some of us, whether we know it or not, are occasional or serial assaulters, and some of us, (and again I have to say this) whether we know it or not, are Weinsteins, Cosbys, and Trumps. Furthermore, a lot of those songs are sung on college campuses where sexual assault is an epidemic. We all learned that behavior somewhere. Odds are, we probably learned it long before our first rugby match, but that doesn't absolve those later forces and behaviors and rituals that reinforce, support, and apologize for those crimes.

Because the permission to depict cartoonish sexual violence against women as meaningless and the permission to put your hands on your co-worker's shoulders and press down in a way that shows her how much stronger and how much bigger you are than she is come from the same place: the belief that women are not fully human.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

It has been fifteen years since I sang songs in a basement, so perhaps this has changed. Other circumstances have prevented me from playing rugby since then. Perhaps these songs are no longer sung. Perhaps, one by one, in team after team across the country, someone stepped forward, said something, started a conversation, had a meeting, and excised those songs from their repertoire. If that is the case, then it is time to step forward and lead, because we desperately need male leaders and male voices. Share your process with the school newspaper or the town newspaper. Put a statement on your website. Offer to meet with other teams to help them start their own conversations. Organize a league-wide training. Bring that training to other sports. Use our professional and social networks to steer other men away from harassment and assault. And—I know you had some great times with them, I know they were there in the rucks, in the goal line stands, walking you back to your dorm—don't let the men who abuse women leverage those networks for personal or professional gain. You don't have to hire them. You don't have to give their name to your boss. You don't have to connect them with your friend in the Chicago office. 

This also could have been a passive process. Perhaps you're on a team that never sang those songs. Perhaps they just fell out of fashion as things just kind of fall out of fashion. Make a statement anyway. Share how you don't miss them. Start a newsletter and send those other songs around. Confront the history. Be public and explicit. And then, if you think you've done all you can around this particular aspect of misogynist culture, find another one and work on that.

We talk a big fucking game about how rugby prepares us for life, how rugby prepares us to lead, how strong our community is. Time to back that talk up. Time to show the strength our community by leading other men. Time to collect our own.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

At the very least, if you still sing them, have a team meeting to talk about these songs. You'll probably find a few guys were just mouthing the words the whole time because the songs made them uncomfortable but they were afraid to say something. There's a chance that they were uncomfortable because they were sexually assaulted in their lives. Maybe that's why that one guy quit.

Whatever decision you come to, the conversation at the meeting is important. I mean, there's a difference between vulgarity and violence just like there's a difference between a dirty song and a sexist song and maybe you guys will be able to hash that out. Maybe you'll get to how big, strong men use their bodies in the world in ways that threaten and oppress women, often explicitly because we are not thinking about our size and strength.  (I mean, if you have the bodily control to keep your feet in the ruck, you can move in a way that doesn't crowd into the space of the women you work with.) Who knows where your conversation will go, but it has to happen.

I know it seems like a small change, a change so small as to almost be pointless. One aspect, of one part, of one sub-culture. How many men would this really impact? A few thousand? Maybe a few tens of thousands? Why bother, right? All big change is just a bunch of small changes stacked on top of each until some critical mass is reached. More importantly, big policy changes can only do so much. Misogyny is an aspect of our laws and our policies and how those laws and policies are applied, but it is also, perhaps in greater part, an aspect of those behaviors that laws and policies can't reach. You can't really pass a law about how close we stand to our coworkers in the break room, about how many times we can ask a woman on a date after she says “no,” about physical contact we can pretend was an accident, was friendly, was just joking around. Fixing it at the government level will only accomplish so much if we don't fix it at the personal level, at the water-cooler level, at the work party-level, at the rugby party in the basement level.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

The strength of the rugby community presents us with an opportunity to do the real work, to make a real difference. It is a strength to be honest with each other. A strength to be honest with ourselves. If you've already done this, a strength to take your good work public and lead other men. The strength to demonstrate a different kind of masculinity. The strength to show what "strength" and "toughness" and "masculinity" can be next.

And, I have to ask: if getting rid of a handful of stupid, silly songs no one is supposed to take seriously tears the community apart, how strong was that community to begin with?

What exactly does this cost you? There are other songs. Write new songs. Sing those instead.

As rugby players respond, I will update this post with corrections, stories, strategies, and whatever else moves the conversation forward.  

Biographic Note: For those who don't know me, I played for three and a half seasons at Saint Michael's College in Vermont during a time when (at least I think so) our program took some big steps forward in terms of quality of play. I was in the pack, starting out as a prop, then a flanker, and playing eight my senior year. Though I was forwards captain my senior year and felt I was a member of my team's community, I was also, slightly set apart. For example, I refused to participate in any hazing. If I didn't want to be in a boat race I wasn't. (Often I did.) If I didn't want to sing a song, I didn't. (Often I did.) My nickname was "The Prophet." I tried to play a few times after college, but I could never get the logistics to work out. The teams in the Boston area all practiced in places that were extremely difficult to get to and I ended up working second shift at my job meaning making practices would have been tough even if they were convenient to get to. I now work Saturdays and, as you all know, Saturday is rugby day. I'm sharing this because I want to be honest about how relatively thin my connection to rugby has become. I could be wrong about those songs. I want to be wrong about those songs. So, I invite responses and corrections. If we have excised that bit of misogyny from our culture, we should share how we did it. We should lead by example.


Other athletes are stepping up and taking leadership roles. For those of you who are more active players, check out Athletes for Impact.

Another friend of mine shared MAP on her timeline. They also run offer a free Coaching for Change online course.

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