In the wake of the ‘Tackling sexism and homophobia in rugby’ event on Tuesday 10 November, Tom Carmichael – LSE Student Union Men’s Rugby Club outreach officer – discusses the progress made with “improving the inclusivity of sport at LSE” and the need to focus on the “kinds of people we should and should not want to be”.
On Tuesday 10 November, the LSE Men’s Rugby Club hosted the event ‘Tackling sexism and homophobia in rugby’, jointly with the LSESU Athletics Union and the LSE Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce.
The purpose of the event was to bring together speakers from all levels
and corners of the game, to clarify what actions we need to take in order to move forward in the areas of equity and diversity. In particular, the discussion focused on the experience of coming out as openly gay in sport, how to achieve parity in recognition between the men’s and women’s games, and how shocking everyday instances of discrimination remain in the sporting world. The gravity of these issues was reflected in the contemplative moments of silence in the audience, yet the speakers also put forward their message in a way which we all felt comfortable listening to and talking about, with moments of humour as well. A key message of the event was that rugby has taken some significant advances in these areas, but that we should also not be complacent in pushing further to make rugby inclusive for all.
While the focus of the event was on the sport as a whole, the context of hosting it was closer to home. After being banned for distributing leaflets at Fresher’s Fair last year containing sexist and homophobic slurs, the men’s rugby club has been involved in a far-reaching reform of its culture. This process has involved a social media campaign aimed at addressing negative ‘lad culture’ and an effort to place community outreach at the centre of the club’s ethos. It hasn’t been an easy process, but this demonstrates that the sporting culture at LSE is heading in the right direction and that progress is being made. The LSE Athletics Union is building upon its work from the previous year with the ‘AU for All‘ campaign, and the collaboration between sport and liberation at LSE is putting LSE at the forefront of progress in universities across the country.
Re-framing the debate
The debate surrounding the men’s rugby club and other incidents at universities has all too often revolved around the assumption of an inherent conflict between freedom of speech on campus on the one hand, and equality and diversity on the other. I do not believe that such a false dichotomy is either necessary or productive in addressing these issues; instead, it just provides us with a sense of discomfort and confusion when faced with two ideals worth striving for.
There is an alternative to this false dichotomy and this lesson has emerged from sport. The alternative is an honest and sincere reflection on our values and the culture of groups which we are a part of.
At the event we heard about the values of rugby, and how players such as David Pocock (who has stood up against homophobia on and off the pitch) and teams like the New Zealand All Blacks demonstrate these through the actions of individual players and their team culture. The philosophy behind the culture of the New Zealand All Blacks is that players are selected not just on their playing ability, but also their character. In practice, this means high standards are expected on and off the pitch in terms of sportsmanship and players are expected to sweep the sheds after training, even if they are world champions. This ethos celebrating virtues such as humility and honesty creates harmony and purpose within the team and leads to better training sessions and performances on the pitch. All Black centre Sonny Bill Williams was recently in the news for giving his world cup winner’s medal to a young fan, and while worthy of a great deal of praise, this is also an unsurprising reflection of what it means to play for the best team in the world.
In order to achieve such a culture in our sports teams, we don’t have to be world champions, and this message is central to the Good Lad Workshops which the LSESU Men’s Rugby Working Group hosted earlier in the year, and the reformed men’s club plans to host again. At the centre of these workshops is the argument that when thinking about issues such as sexual consent, rather than placing the focus on the minimum standards of the law we should instead place our aims well beyond minimum expectations, shaping the culture of men’s sports teams into something more positive, and acting upon our values and respect for others in how we conduct ourselves.
Towards a new paradigm
The reform of the men’s rugby club is certainly not complete, and there is a long road until we reach the aim of becoming a leader in this area. The challenge is to ensure the process continues, and that such a social ethos becomes a long-term part of the culture, with all members understanding its importance. This requires a sincere effort and leadership in order to achieve. It may not be easy, and the dynamics of group behaviour can often leave us unwilling to voice our own opinions and stand up for what we believe is right. If approached with courage, honesty and respect however, more progress can be made.
The event was a landmark moment for rugby at LSE. It was a celebration of the success of the LSE Women’s Rugby Club, and a chance for the LSE Men’s Rugby Club to help the wider sport lead the way in tackling prejudice. It brought forward insights and experiences which many of us will be lucky not to face, and emphasised the need for us to determine our identities and ensure they reflect the ethos of our
sport. We may make mistakes, but providing we are sincere in our efforts to listen to others and learn from them, then we will all be better people for it. Whilst this does not justify the leaflets in any way, we must not forget that what happened with the rugby club has provided us with this opportunity to go far in improving the inclusivity of sport at LSE, and has brought these issues out into the open to be discussed.
The event also allows us to reshape the discussion on equity and diversity. Conversations about the relationship between equity and diversity, and freedom of speech are important, but we should not
believe these values to be mutually exclusive. Too much of the discussion has been focused on what people should and should not be allowed to say, rather than the kinds of people we should and should not want to be. It should not be about toeing the line of political correctness, but about wanting to have respect for the experiences of people who are different from us, and redirecting what we value towards this. We can be free to say what we like, but the real question is why we want to express ourselves in the ways we do. In his speech, Nigel Owens spoke both about the need for us to maintain a sense of humour and how important respect is in rugby. If we place these values at the centre of our identity then we will make our culture inclusive. There are role models in all sports who demonstrate exactly how such cultures can be created, and the people and actions which should inspire us. The key is for us to have the humility to be receptive to exactly what our actions demonstrate about who we are. The LSE Athletics Union this year has been extremely proactive and the current leadership should receive a tremendous amount of credit for how far they are working with liberation groups to put equality at the heart of sport. If we all act more like the New Zealand All Blacks and identify similar role models in all sports, then I believe that we will go much further in achieving the depth of positive change we all want to see.
Tom Carmichael is the LSESU Men’s Rugby Club outreach officer. The role of the outreach officer is to ensure that the club is an inclusive sporting environment, to set up collaborative projects and build relationships with groups inside and outside LSE, to address issues of prejudice and to promote diversity. This is part of a wider push for engagement by the LSE Athletics Union to reach those who may not previously have considered taking up sport at LSE.