The Rugby Country

New Zealand is the rugby country. Sure, we didn’t win double gold in the sevens at Rio, but the All Blacks are on a world record winning streak — and, more importantly, that is the way many of us think about our country.

We are the rugby country — so the problems of us, of our society — have played out in rugby over the last few months.

Don’t get me wrong, I fucking love rugby. And these are not just rugby problems. These are New Zealand problems.

Start with the Chiefs “Mad Monday” debacle. A team of entitled men violate a woman’s boundaries and people say she asked for it by virtue of her profession. There was an unappetising mix of “No good girl becomes a stripper”, “A rugby team shouldn’t hire strippers — that’s the only thing they did wrong though”, and “Strippers can’t have boundaries because men are completely base and can’t control themselves.” (Side note: Why aren’t more men appalled that we are viewed that way?)

Oh, and let’s not forget the homophobic slurs that kicked the whole thing off.

Yes, NZ was the first country to give women the vote. But that was more than 100 years ago, and we really need to stop pretending that our nation’s problems with gender inequality ended there.

We legalised sex work, but apparently still can’t recognise the personhood of sex workers. If a life model was assaulted, would we consider their profession makes them inherently untrustworthy? Why can artists control themselves but not rugby players?

The NZRU board has no women on it, and that undoubtedly affected their handling of the affair — but how many other major corporate boards are stacked with men?

The existence of “Mad Monday”. The slap on the wrist punishment. These are vestiges of a sport that ended 30 years ago in the amateur era and have no place in the professional rugby environment. But they are also vestiges of an era which has existed in this country for decades — which we still have not shaken off.

Then Losi Filipo. A young man who violently assaulted four people and was discharged without conviction because a conviction might hurt his rugby career. Wellington Rugby handled it poorly. The courts handled it poorly. The media handled it so badly it was actually shameful. But almost as shameful was the number of people — particularly white people — whose immediate response was to howl for Filipo to be thrown in prison. As though prison is good for much else other than teaching people to be better criminals, and giving them few other professional options on release.

I went to university in Dunedin. I remember a time when the number of young people who got drunk, assaulted people, and were given diversions because a conviction would harm their professional careers was very briefly the subject of outrage. But only briefly, because those young people were Pakeha, and despite being the rugby country, we don’t see rugby as being a career.

Rugby has a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol and violence. New Zealand has that same problem.

And Aaron Smith. Stupid, unlucky Aaron Smith. Stupid because who has sex in the accessible toilet at an airport, wearing their work uniform, on a work trip before they’ve even gotten on the plane? Especially in the age where the majority of people have a camera on them at all times. And beyond that — don’t involve unwilling people in your sex life.

Unlucky because who follows someone into a public toilet, hears sex noises, decides to record it, and then sends that recording to the media? That’s gross. That’s creepy voyeurism. Don’t involve yourself in the sex lives of unwilling people.

I don’t care that Smith had sex with a random. I think his being dropped from the team was fair enough because, again, he was dumb enough to do it in his uniform. I know my employment contract says that behaviour which brings my employer into disrepute is grounds for disciplinary action. This is basic stuff — and it should have ended there.

But really, how prudish are we as a nation? Or possibly, how voyeuristic? Why did two people having a quickie become headline news?

What is a role model? What qualifies you to be one? And did people really justify this public spectacle with “Won’t somebody think of the children?”

Kiwis love to venerate our rugby players, turn them into gods — and we love to watch them come crashing down when they prove themselves to be human, with all the consequent fuckups which humans make. Smith was stupid. He wasn’t worth three days of headlines.

It’s at times like this I’m unsure if I should be glad that I live in a country where a shag in a toilet is the biggest thing going on; or worried because I live in a country which has much bigger things going on that I’m not being informed about.

New Zealand has pervasive problems; problems with women, sex, race, homophobia, alcohol, and violence. It also has major problems with perpetuating the narrow stereotype of what constitutes a “real man.”

Real men are heterosexual. Real men drink. Real men fight. Real men are always up for sex , whatever the consequences. Real men cannot control their primal urges around women, and so cannot be expected to control their actions. Real men are permitted to express themselves solely through anger or sex.

Men and women alike perpetuate this attitude — that to fail to live up to this destructive image is to fail to be a real man. No one wants to see an All Black cry — real men don’t cry.

The consensus from the last few months of scandal is that rugby must change. Rugby culture must change. But it cannot do so in a vacuum. For this change to happen, New Zealand culture must change.

We are, after all, the rugby country.