CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – There was plenty of rugby on last weekend with the Six Nations, Super 15 and the LV Cup all televised. However, one rugby related moment was lost by many in the general rugby community. David Pocock, former Wallabies captain and renowned activist, stood up for one of his own deeply-held beliefs. With time ticking down in the Waratahs’ 28-13 mauling of the Brumbies, the Brumbies’ captain, on two separate occasions, approached the referee to complain of incidents of homophobic insults being thrown at his players. It has since been reported that South African-born Waratahs flanker, Jacques Potgieter, was responsible for the slurs. He has been fined a sizable sum by the ARU ($20,000) and has since sent out an apology for his shocking behaviour.
Pocock’s stance raises more than just the issue of what many who play the sport might consider casual banter, soon forgotten in the heat of the moment. It reminds the rugby community that they cannot simply pay lip service to issues such as homophobia and inequality in general, but must actively fight against such archaic and offensive sentiments. Events such as The Bingham Cup (a rugby tournament for gay rugby teams) are not simply skin deep, stand-alone tournaments to be feted once a year; they are symbols of rugby’s inclusion of all people, no matter their sexual orientation, creed or (as has been very well documented historically) – their color.
In raising the issue with the referee, (the on-field authority), Pocock was bringing attention to the wider on-pitch issues. Swearing is frowned upon – and swearing at referees is a red card offence (cough, Dylan Hartley). So why is rugby, a sport that is famous for its zero tolerance on many issues like bad language, not utilizing a zero tolerance policy in regards to homophobia? If a player used a derogatory term for black people on the field (and there are unfortunately more than a few of these terms), there would not only be a huge fight (players standing up for their aggrieved teammates), but likely a red card and then a ban or fine. So why not introduce the same stringent laws for homophobia? One rule for racists another for homophobes in a sport that trumpets its equality to the rooftops?
Pocock must be applauded for his incredibly brave stance in approaching the referee, especially in regards to an issue that many may see as water off a duck’s back in the heat of battle. I can hear the defenders of Potgieter’s language now… “It’s not meant to be demeaning, but just a simple insult.”
There is a fine line where a good sledge, becomes something deeply offensive – whether personally tailored (family, etc) or more generally, such as this case. Some might say a sledge is part and parcel of the game, and that may be true. However, when your sledge encompasses a portion of the population that has been persecuted throughout history and continues to be to this day, then it becomes David Pocock’s and the wider rugby community’s problem.
For the wider benefit of rugby, imagine a sport where homophobia was treated in the same bracket as disrespect of officials, racism and overt violence (e.g smacking somebody, not Courtney Lawes tackling). Rugby would be able to call itself the single most inclusive, upstanding, cleanest and respectful mainstream sport in existence. Parents would flock to sign up their children, “Oh yes a little bit of physicality, but look at the values my little baby will learn!” Pocock may have specifically targeted homophobia with his comments to Craig Joubert but in doing so he raised the question over why such clear-cut issues are ignored when others are constantly held in the public psyche.
A well-known advocate of depression awareness, Clyde Rathbone, wrote a scathingly sarcastic article on Pocock’s stand, coming down firmly on the young Wallaby’s side whilst condemning the macho culture that allows rugby to get away with on pitch homophobia. With such a huge amount of energy gone into women’s equality and depression awareness in both rugby codes (the NRL has a Women in League dedicated weekend to raise awareness for women’s rights and breast cancer), surely it must be time for raised awareness of homophobia, and an acceptance that there are and will always be gay members of the public playing rugby?
Unfortunately, not all rugby players have the ability and CV of openly gay rugby superstar Gareth Thomas. Many may feel they must continue in anonymity due to remarks made by others such as Potgieter, in order to avoid abuse. This must stop and the only way to do this is with people like Pocock calling culprits out into the open to answer for their words.
I will leave you with one thought: In the not so distant past one of the rugby super powers, South Africa, was sanctioned for the crimes of its Apartheid regime. The vast majority of countries refused to tour to South Africa, and refused to allow South Africa to travel to their shores to take part in professional sports contests. South Africa as a nation was censured by rugby for the crimes of the few and their repression of a large segment. If this censure was possible, why are players in this modern age not censured for their verbal attempts to repress another different (granted smaller) segment of the rugby playing community? An individual nation is censured for its repression of a large portion of the population, surely it is reasonable for an individual player to be censured for attempted verbal repression of a smaller percentage of the population. Fair trade?
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