September 21, 2016
I’ll never forget how I felt after my first rugby practice. Walking through the Fox dining hall at UMass Lowell, dripping mud, sweat, and a little blood, I’d never felt more manly or (if I’m being completely honest) sexier in my life. It was like I had suddenly leveled up in my rugged and rakish-ness and everyone noticed. I felt like a shiny, beautiful, giant as I carried my tray to eat with my new brothers.
I had played violent sports before, but something about rugby made it different. Rugby felt more primal - faster, more ferocious, and more brutal. It’s a team game that relies on the total commitment of each individual; there is no hiding on the rugby pitch. Without any protective equipment, you feel every point of contact with the other players. It is harsh and unrelenting, testing your mind, body, and will constantly. I was soooo in!
Beyond the obvious physicality, rugby is also an incredibly intimate sport. Not just because of the close quarters contact, the scrums, rucks, and mauls, where players bodies intertwine and pile up, or the hands, arms, and even faces that make their way around the various body parts of opposing players and teammates - although there is plenty of all that.
Rugby is a game that fosters loyalty and trust amongst players. Each play demands personal sacrifice for the benefit of the team. This (and maybe also the repetitive touching) leads to a wonderfully pervasive culture of community and camaraderie that surrounds the sport. I’ve been able to be more vulnerable with my teammates than most others in my life.
There has been (and surely will continue to be) endless scholarly work examining the relationship between sports and traditional concepts of masculinity. Nauright and Chandler’s Making Men: Rugby and Masculine Identity takes an incredibly thorough look at the history of rugby specifically. As a topic, this is a thick, many petaled, and deeply fried Bloomin’ Onion. I won’t attempt to offer you the whole dish; rather, a tiny nibble of just one delicious, crispy, petal - by - petal.
Rewind to a few hours before my first post-rugby practice dining hall strut. I remember walking to the spot on campus where the team would meet to carpool to the practice field. As I approached, I could see that a lot of the guys were wearing team gear, so they must have played before. They also looked a lot more fit than me.That summer, through many emptied cans of Bud Light, I had mastered the 12oz. curls, but I had done little else in the way of exercise. “Is this the carpool for rugby?” I asked.
“Yeah! And we could definitely use a guy your size!” one of the guys in team gear responded. Instantly, my additional body mass felt like an asset to me, not something I had to hold my breath to hide.
Rugby’s design as a sport allows players of varying sizes and skills to contribute right away. There’s a position and a role for everyone. As a player, referee, and coach, I have shared the pitch with folks of just about every identity. Ruggers are notorious chop-busters, but the tie that binds us transcends our differences and the barbs we trade. The thing that really hooked me into rugby was that while I was on the pitch, I could effortlessly tune out everything else. All the noise and baggage from my day, my life, quieted. All that mattered in those moments were the people I shared the game with and the game itself.
Too often, sports and athletics are stereotyped as breeding grounds for misogyny, abuse, exclusivity, and all the nastier ways humans choose to treat each other. This isn’t to say that those things don’t happen; they certainly do, and most of us have seen it first hand - but, sports can also be a tremendous conduit for the opposite. Sports carry history, tradition, and meaningful shared experiences that often lay a foundation for community building.
The most fun I’ve ever had at a sporting event was screaming spectator chants in a sea of strangers as part of the Kenyan section at an international rugby tournament. Walk into one of these events and you’ll notice right away that each country has staked claim to a section of the stadium. At first, the segregation of each country’s supporters may seem territorial and confrontational, but over the course of a few days, as you make your way around the stadium, visiting each section becomes more of a spectacle than the matches themselves. Each section has its own way of celebrating the game, each celebration seemingly an echo of that country’s traditions and culture. A veritable union of fans and families travelling to support their national team or coming out to welcome teams to their home country.
In some ways, it’s ironic that rugby has come to be a beacon of goodwill around the globe. The spread of the game worldwide is largely the result of nationalistic imperialism which brought the game from the traditional 19th century British boarding schools, where rugby was invented and developed, to as far as the tiny island nations of the South Pacific. The earliest incarnations of rugby and the laws that govern the game sought to instill in upper-class, white, males the Victorian standards of manliness and civility through the game’s physical nature and an emphasis on “gentlemanly” play (Nauright & Chandler, 1996). The world, and the game, has evolved over the past 200 years. Today, the racial de-segregation of major national teams in New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere are internationally celebrated moments in the sport’s history. Rugby clubs like the Jozi Cats, “the first gay and inclusive rugby team in South Africa,” challenge stereotypes of gay men and conventional notions of masculinity in a marketing campaign that went viral this summer: Upworthy.com Jozi Cats article.
I’m not going to argue for rugby as a universal model for social or geopolitical change, but for me and my own little world, it works. I was lucky enough to find this sport that allows teams to bring very different individuals into it’s wonderfully inclusive culture, and that puts respect for the game, and the people involved in it, before the final score of the matches. Maybe that’s the secret sauce to the rugby culture, into which I continue to dip my crunchy fried onion petal. Why people keep coming back for more, or why older folks around the game continue to bring our children and families to weekend matches and tournaments. We’ve seen what the game has to offer, what makes it important, and we know how much we owe to it.
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