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As a society, we have been negatively impacted by an emerging irony. As much as the internet has shrunk the world by providing anybody with access a voice and an ear to other cultures, the rise of fear, hate and ignorance has held a stronger voice and this has impacted global societal discourse. From the emergence of radical politics to the proliferation of internet trolls and the emerging intolerance for our differences, ignorance runs rampant in a world where access to information has never been easier.
In many sports globally, fans have been witness to a rise of disrespectful and unsportsmanlike conduct. Disrespectful end zone celebrations in American football, trash talking of referees in basketball, banned substance abuse in Olympic sports, and the proliferation of diving and faking injuries in football are several examples of winning at any and all costs with a growing lack of respect for rules and civility.
Our thesis is simple. Because sport is a powerful tool in shaping culture well beyond the borders of the pitch, arena, and field, and the sport that best embodies civility, respect, inclusivity, and toughness is rugby, the world needs more rugby.
Sport, of course, is only one element of societal zeitgeist. Social media has created billions of pulpits and the dissemination of ridiculous thinking disguised as facts is rampant and unrelenting. Live fact checking politicians is now a thing. We cannot and do not trust anyone to be truthful or correct. In a world where we are often bombarded with negativity, where can we turn to for positivity and inspiration? We at Ædelhard feel the answer to this question is “the sport of rugby”.
Sport as a cultural influence is absolutely powerful. As a reflection of current societal discourse and as an influence on the masses, sports, much like music and religion, weaves its way into the cultural fabric of communities globally. Nelson Mandela knew the importance of sport. He leveraged the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a vehicle to unify a divided country. When he walked onto the Ellis Park rugby pitch wearing the green and gold Springbok’s jersey, a symbol of the Afrikaans’s Apartheid movement, in a gesture of reconciliation, the world noticed. So too did the 60,000 cheering fans, 95% white South Africans who adored their Madiba. They shouted, “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!”
Sport is religion to many. As fans it fuels our competitive nature and brings diverse people together. As players we learn teamwork, goal setting and responsibility in action. Top athletes are heroic figures in our society and role models to our children. What our children see they mimic. And sadly too often they are seeing doping, disrespectful antics, trash-talking, fighting, and rude behaviour. Winning at all costs.
Unless they watch rugby.
Historically, in North America, rugby is a game of the privileged. It is played in private schools and well-off communities. It is a key sport in country clubs and Ivy League colleges. Its fan base is amongst the most educated and affluent in the world. In one survey, in 12 of the 14 top rugby-faring nations, roughly 70% of the fan base were in the highest income bracket. The fan base is educated and sophisticated. Recently and thankfully, however, the sport has been growing in an inclusive manner.
It can be argued that no other sport is as inclusive as rugby. Anybody can play as there is a position for every body size. The rugby community is inclusive of race, culture, language, sexual orientation and gender. The sport of rugby has done more for aboriginal rights in countries in the South Pacific than any other. The Rugby Sevens tournament at the Rio Olympics hosted a talented pool of women’s teams and featured hard hitting, powerful women competing as much for the glory of their nations as promotion of their beloved sport. Rugby is attracting more and more youth and in America, over two million children have participated in rugby programs. It is the fastest growing sport in America.
In a country where concussions are killing American Football players and shortening players’ lives, more and more youngsters are switching to rugby. The average American Football game has only about 10 minutes of actual action yet leads to tremendous crippling hits. Statistician and author Malcolm Gladwell has recently suggested that American Football will not survive as a mainstream sport in the next couple of decades because of head trauma. “That’s what football is going to become,” he remarked in an interview. “It’s going to become the Army. That’s a very, very different situation. That’s a ghettoized sport, not a mainstream American sport.” He said the game would become the sport of last resort, a game of the under-privileged.
The world needs more rugby because it, like no other sport, has the right amount of barbarism and the right amount of civility. It requires far more athleticism than other sports and is hard hitting and high scoring. It can be a brutally tough sport yet it is fundamentally a sport that is grounded in respect and rules.
When I played in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I often marveled at the politeness of the players. All tries and converts were followed by thank-yous to the try-scorer or kicker. One early recollection was when my brother broke free from a ruck and ran an uncontested 50 metres to score a try. Before he touched down the ball, he lifted the ball in celebration as a taunt to the other team. He was subsequently benched for disrespecting the opponent. You can win. You can run the score. But you can never show off. Civility in action.
At the Rugby World Cup in 2015 in London, referee Nigel Owens was mic’d and his words whilst refereeing trended globally in social media. At a game in Newcastle, when Scotland player Stuart Hogg flailed and was suspected of diving, Owen’s famously said, “if you want to dive like that again, come back here in two weeks and play, not today,” obviously a crack at the shenanigans in soccer. Newcomers to rugby are often shocked at the level of respect players have for the word of the referee. “Yes sir.” “Yes ma’am.” “Thank-you sir.” Thank-you ma’am.” This is not a habit of all American professional athletes. Talking back is part of many sports.
The sport of rugby in itself was an evolution of a much more barbaric game called Cornish Hurling. Founder William Webb Ellis wanted a tougher ball game than football that was still suited to gentlemen and formed the laws of the game. Above and beyond the laws of the sport there is an unwritten code of conduct in rugby founded in respect. Politeness is paramount and despite the tough sport, players drink and celebrate with the opposing team after matches. A rugby player of any standing is chivalrous, well mannered, and polite. And as players have been traditionally well-educated, the discourse is the right amount of pleasant chatter and the right amount of debaucherous back slapping.
It is in that light that I say again, the world needs more rugby. Rugby can be a vehicle to elevate the vacuous discourse prevalent in society today. We can count on a sport with a code of conduct rooted in chivalry and respect to positively contribute to the evolution of our inner cities and ghettos. We can count on a game that is accessible to all body types, genders and skill levels to improve inclusiveness. We can count on a game that is rooted in civility to enhance communication and tolerance in our communities. And it is accessible to the under-privileged as well. It requires only a ball and a pitch to play and therefore is available to any under- funded community.
Is it possible to use rugby as a tool for societal change? Yes, if you ask Mark Griffin of Play Rugby USA. He founded a rugby program in under privileged areas of New York City in 2003 with intention of developing youth through rugby. Since 2003, over 6500 children have gone through his program and according to his website, every single one of their 2013-14 Rugby Academy players graduated from high school. 80% went to college and managed to earn $500,000 in college scholarships. Similar programs are being sprouted around North America and throughout the world. The Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation (TIRF) boasts similar results. So does the Rio Rugby Club in Rio De Janiero, Brazil. Rugby is an outlet for people living in the favelas. Using the unwritten code of rugby to develop youth is something that is proven to work. And is something that you need to support.
Together as rugby fans, we need to promote the sport and develop additional programs for the next generation of athlete. We need to fund coaching programs and get youth to get off their couches and into sports that promote positive values. Values that are decreasingly in existence in our era of the mind-numbing media bombardment of reality TV stars.
Rugby can be our greatest tool in elevating our school system if we allow it to flourish. With the growing of the sport comes opportunity. At college. In industry. And, with a professional rugby league beginning to flourish in America, there are increasing opportunities for professional sporting careers.
Encouraging diversity into rugby means ensuring players from all levels of education and income, any nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation, from urban neighbourhoods or rural communities alike have the opportunity to play. Grounding them on a value system of chivalry, politeness, manners, commitment, hard work, respect, and teamwork will be the saving grace of our great societal divide.
The call to action is clear. Support grass roots rugby programs in your communities. Let’s step up coaching levels and elevate the training of youth rugby. Ædelhard is donating 2% of its sales to developing youth rugby. It is our goal to have rugby become a Top 5 Sport in America by 2022. Help us to achieve this goal.