Could the New Zealand Rugby Union’s Latest Efforts Mark The Beginning of the End of Sexism and Preferential Treatment in Rugby?

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The following is a special to The Outside Game from Phaidra Knight. Named as USA Rugby’s Player of the Decade in 2010, Knight is a professional athlete, brand ambassador, sports media talent, motivational speaker and business entrepreneur. We asked her point of view on New Zealand Rugby (NZR)’s recent efforts to address sexism in its sport in the wake of recent scandals.  

NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 19: Rugby player Phaidra Knight attends the 37th Annual Salute To Women In Sports Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on October 19, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Women’s Sports Foundation )

Although the world has evolved on many levels, sexism continues to be a dividing force in nearly every culture. There was no greater reminder of this dysfunction than Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign. We were starkly reminded that women’s reproductive rights are still a contested item, women make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes, and one in six women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime.

New Zealand, known as the first country to grant women the right to vote in 1893, has recently fallen under the spotlight for incidences with sexist undertones.   In one incident, a stripper was hired to perform at a “Mad Mondays” end of season party hosted by the Waikato Chiefs, a professional rugby union team. The stripper was hired by the players and alleged that she was forcefully and inappropriately touched by members of the team.   A subsequent interrogation of several witnesses revealed that no players were actually involved in the misconduct. All Blacks Coach Steve Hanson suggested that “Mad Mondays” needed to be done away with completely so that things like this are unlikely to arise.

The second incidence occurred when a Wellington male teenage rugby star brutally assaulted four individuals, including two women. The assault ended one of the victim’s rugby playing career. The teen got off virtually unpunished by the courts and would have likely continued playing rugby for Wellington but for a public protest and heated debate that drew in a dissenting opinion from New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. Many alleged that (male) rugby stars get special treatment from the court system. The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) was of the opinion that young men, like the teen, were better off with rugby in their lives. Nevertheless, after receiving much public backlash, New Zealand Rugby decided to terminate the teen’s contract. Apparently, other All Blacks have, too, avoided facing criminal charges for domestic violence and assault related incidences.

Rugby is a tremendous component in the New Zealand culture. Of the 4.47 million people who live in New Zealand, more than 146,000 are registered rugby players. Rugby Union is the national sport in New Zealand.   Many New Zealanders associate it with their national identity. Needless to say, professional rugby is high profile in the public eye. These players are regarded as role models to many, young and old. So when incidences like these arise, how they are dealt can be extremely influential.   It appears that past handling of similar incidences have understandably given rise to much scrutiny. Although rugby is incredible for providing positive refuge, structure and discipline for troubled youth, everyone must be held accountable for their actions.   As for blatant sexism, the work to be done is far greater and on a much more intimate level. Attitudes and perceptions of both males and females must shift.

Just this month, the NZRU formed a panel to examine sexism in the game in an effort to make the game much more inclusive and less chauvinistic.   The nine-person panel, that includes two former All Blacks and one female Olympic kayaker, will spend the next six months in review.

I commend the NZRU in their efforts to bring some attention, understanding, and clarity to this issue.   Perhaps this act of remediation can be adopted by other rugby governing bodies such as USA Rugby and World Rugby. I encourage the NZRU to go beyond the surface and really probe the more subtle demonstrations of sexism that have been integrated into common interactions such as the following:

  1. The use of inherently sexist language: An example of such is when people use phrases like “man up” and “grow a pair” to insinuate that men are essentially stronger and more resilient than women. It’s also common, particularly in rugby, for people to add the world “female” or “women” before a job title such as “female rugby player” or “women’s rugby team” whereas, their male counterparts are simply referred to by their title.
  1. Mockery for showing emotion: Compelling research shows that when women express anger during a group interaction, they are taken less seriously as opposed to men, who gain respect when displaying anger in this context.
  1. Less praise and reward for comparable or greater accomplishment: I am aware of many instances where women achieved comparable or even greater accolades than men in sport, notably rugby, but did not receive the remuneration or commendation that their male counterparts received.
  1. Less media exposure: A 2014 study revealed that only 3.2% of sports airtime was devoted to women.
  1. Less professional sports/rugby opportunities: Yes, I am going to throw this one out there. If it was not for the Olympics and the inclusion of rugby into that framework in 2016, it is a logical assumption that women’s professional rugby would be non-existent.

Before there can be a solution, there must first be recognition and awareness of the deviant, in all of it’s disguises. I hope this panel is the next step in this process and it will lead to remediation affecting not only in New Zealand, but the rest of the world.   I firmly believe that the sport of rugby could be a vehicle of influence in minimizing this and many other social issues.