Sports Editor Dylan Tuck takes a look at why rugby culture still has a long, hard road to improvement.
This is hardly breaking news, but rugby lad culture is still prevalent in modern society. Lad culture is predominantly the promotion of a particular form of masculinity, and that is toxically expressed through hard drinking, "locker room chat" and typically, although not always, misogyny. To say that lad culture is bad is not to say that men on the whole are bad. But we can – and should – continue to call out a culture that prides itself on the prolonging of long outdated attitudes and behaviour.
So why is lad culture relevant now? Last month, at the 150th anniversary rugby club dinner, guest speakers at the event, Dr Bobby Low and Sir Roger Baird, were accused of using misogynistic and derogatory language in front of an audience, so much so that many were reported to have walked out of the event. When questioned on their conduct, the speakers responded by declaring it was merely “locker room chat” and highlighted that those upset showed a clash of generational differences, suggesting that only one group out of the room found it offensive. And in there lies the perfect example of lad culture in sport, and the neatly packaged justification that inevitably comes along with it like a dead insect in your packet of salad leaves.
Lad culture refuses to hold itself accountable for its own poor choices. Cat-calling women? It’s just a compliment. Bullying? Just banter, mate. But this type of behaviour breeds worse attitudes, and is only perpetuated in male-dominated areas like sport. Rugby – historically one of the biggest offenders – has damaged its reputation so badly that it is now so integrally intertwined with ideas of toxic masculinity and laddish behaviour. To be clear, sport itself isn’t solely responsible for lad culture. Rugby, football, golf, or any other sport is just that, a sport, an activity, an entertainment. But it should be held accountable for its perpetual breeding of bad behaviour, and tackling such an issue poses a major problem.
Over the past few years, handling toxic masculinity and moving away from the dangerous mantras of "just man up" and opening discussions on men’s mental health have come on leaps and bounds, and in sport too, but it’s pulled back down by knuckle-dragging conduct that seems never to go away. It makes rugby and sport seem inaccessible to those who aren’t of a laddish nature, which in turn only closes off the game to continue producing people of the same volition. From ground level, lad culture builds a toxicity that rots its way through the game.
Even in the world of celebrity television, rugby lad culture is getting shtick on all platforms of social media, thanks to the behaviour of former England Rugby star, James Haskell. Haskell’s name had been trending a fair amount on Twitter, due to his displays in the jungle on I’m A Celebrity, rather than for stuff on the pitch (although admittedly, it’s hard to do both at the same time). Haskell had begun on the show by offering glimpses of a hopeful future for rugby stars, where the sport is disassociated with such levels of poor behaviour, emphasised by the fact that he seemed a humble, caring individual – almost woke for 2019. His kind, caring attitude to those in camp was refreshing to see, and almost quenched the rugby lad stereotype. This seemed initially surprising to a fair few, not because of Haskell’s character, but because of his rugby, alpha male background. But after a while, the mask seemed to slip, and out came displays of incessant chivalry, sulking, controlling, and demeaning behaviour that did his brief stint as a personality star little favours. Was this just an extreme example of a rather hefty bloke starved of food and isolated in unusual, saturated conditions? Or is this just another case of lad culture broadcast on our tellies?
To make the changes away from all this, you have to start by realising a problem and calling it out. Misogyny, sexism, casual racism – whatever it may be under the disguise of "banter", society is moving forward too quickly and with good reason, to let lad culture trail behind like some toilet paper stuck to your shoe. Its danger is its twinkling smile, that most lads aren’t always "laddy": they can appear nice and friendly, before effectively severing their own head by saying something that cancels themself. Actions don’t have to be violent, nor even aggressive, for chatter is justified as just "locker room talk" meant for pre-game dressing rooms, banterous WhatsApp groups, while necking Dark Fruits in Spoons, or often found on LadBible. Lad culture is an enabling culture that holds men and their actions on a pedestal above that of women and their suffering of sexual assault, harrassment and objectification.
Rugby, and more generally sport, is a reflection of society. If you see or hear misogynistic behaviour at a game, it’s of the society it spawned from. But sport shouldn’t ignore its politics – it should be a safe space for everyone. There’s no immediate flicked-switch conclusion to stopping lad culture, nor is there to spot the rot of sexist or misogynistic behaviour in society as a whole, but you can start on an individual level. Question poor comments, call out those who cause people to feel uncomfortable, and make people understand the power of their words. Both the men's and women’s teams have apologised for the offence caused by guest speakers at their event, so continue not to stand for or justify bad behaviour. Maybe then, sport on the whole, will do the same.