The events of this week have cast a shadow across rugby, with the despicable behaviour of one of its most beloved teams shocking the nation. But, Steve Hansen aside, its most prominent voices have stayed silent. Why?
In US sports they have this nickname, “America’s Team”. Initially bestowed upon the dominant Dallas Cowboys team of the 80s, it’s latterly come to be attached to any team which seems to embody the aspirational national character – and notwithstanding all the deeply fucked up things happening in America, the idea that certain teams at certain moments can acquire a meaning beyond the arena in which they do their work has a resonance.
To me, over the past five years or so, The Waikato Chiefs were New Zealand’s team. Assembled from pieces who’d failed to find a home at other franchises, or been judged not good enough, they coalesced into something awe-inspiring on the field, winning championships playing with a kind of passionate recklessness. Compared to some of our more famous teams, the Chiefs took risks, screwed up and came back to win anyway. They were led by people who seemed of matchless character, too – from coaches Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith (who nearly quit the All Blacks after a particularly ugly drinking session in South Africa) to senior players like Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams.
The point is that they were easy to romanticise, to view as a different and more modern version of the New Zealand rugby archetype. Then this week happened, and all that went out the window. Over a series of devastating interviews conducted with RNZ and Story a woman named Scarlette describes a terrifying ordeal in which a group of big, strong, drunk men repeatedly touched her, licked her, grabbed her vagina and ignored her protestations and increasingly violent resistance. At the end, after all they’d put her through, they short-changed her.
As Amanda Gillies said during Scarlett’s chilling interview on Story, “that’s a sexual assault”. It is, and police are investigating – though, in a too familiar refrain, Scarlette is ambivalent about pursuing a complaint through that avenue, given her experience with them in the past.
This is a known organisational problem for the police, one they’re working through. But this situation is a new and immense problem for rugby. Already it’s metastasising within the Waikato, with a stripper hired for a prior team event describing similarly degrading and potentially illegal behaviour.
The incidents are manifestly despicable. It’s the kind of behaviour you instinctively know exists in the seldom-visited corridors of our collective national history. The blind eye of generations of sportswriters toward this kind of behaviour is the stuff of legend – players were indulged and their actions never considered for reporting due to an unspoken jock-sniffing compact which existed between reporters and their subjects.
Thankfully a different generation of journalists within and without of sports has jettisoned that attitude along with thousands of other unwritten rules which often poisoned life for those who weren’t the dominant gender and ethnicity in this country. It’s still a mess, but at least we’re not pretending it doesn’t exist.
As ugly as this moment is, and potentially crminal as those actions are, the fact it’s the single story gripping the nation is indicative of an evolution in the code of both society and sports: this shit will not stand any longer. The response of both Andrew Flexman and Gallagher’s Margaret Comer earlier in the week suggests that neither had woken up to that fact. Well, now they know.
The bigger problem for rugby is the vacuum from the code itself. Where are the senior players and former players, speaking up, instinctively and without mediation, about how affronted and appalled they are by this?
Steve Hansen made a short, sharp, off-the-cuff comment condemning the actions and calling for an end to the “mad Monday” celebrations which are so frequently the source of these kind of nightmare stories. It was a case of serious and sincere moral leadership from a man who has lately become a gruff, stoic and quite unexpected exemplar of a kind of progressive thought.
He is to be applauded. But for days now the rest of the code is chillingly silent. For a sport which derives huge portions of its revenue by selling its players as larger-than-life archetypes of our most beloved national traits, this is deeply troubling. Because part of the kind of good character the code trades off – which it has always sought to epitomise by contrast to its supposed poor relation, rugby league – is stepping forward and owning a situation.
The NZRU, which has a legendary PR machine and has trained its young men to be comfortable speaking for hours and saying almost nothing, has a fortress-like quality at the moment. They must be watching, and feel paralysed by these scenes. Yet publicly, the most powerful names in the game haven’t come forward to confront this problem. And every day that they don’t starts to undo the genuine reforms to both behaviour and outlook which the game has undergone over the past 15 years.
Yet in the absence of those senior voices deploying some of their immense mana here, large sections of the country will persist in thinking this is just boys being boys, PC going mad again and what did she expect. As Alex Casey showed in her opinion piece on the issue, our social media sites are flooded with vile comments suggesting all that and worse.
Yet as well as being a serious criminal matter and a blight on the game which will echo into the future, it is also giant teachable moment for New Zealand. For anything good to come out the disgusting behaviour on that night, someone from within the game needs to step forward and call it what it was. Send a signal to both the code and those who follow it that this is not what they stand for, not acceptable and not what this game is about.
Because while the idea of The Chiefs as “New Zealand’s team” is now gone, the chance for the team’s and the sport’s fans to learn something about consent and boundaries is not. Rugby prides itself on being a place where national virtues like resilience, sacrifice and leadership can be made flesh on sporting fields. Now, at a juncture of great crisis, it’s time for some of its greatest practitioners to live those values.