Fandom versus hooliganism in the modern game
OPINION: After being on the receiving end of alleged physical and verbal abuse whilst travelling back from England’s loss to Scotland in Edinburgh, head coach Eddie Jones has vowed never to use public transport again citing security fears.
Video footage has emerged of several people with Scottish accents first posing for selfies with Jones, before unleashing a torrent of abuse, even opening the door of Jones’ car in order to continue hurling insults at the Australian.
Scottish Rugby have condemned the incident, saying they are "appalled" at such "disgusting behaviour,"
It is unclear whether or not this video footage represents the entirety of the abuse Jones describes, but regardless there has been a great deal of outrage surrounding the incident.
VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: England coach Eddie Jones being verbally abused as he arrived in Manchester on Sunday after rail journey from Edinburgh. Disgusting after he was good enough to pose for photos. Now says doesn’t feel safe on public transport. (Warning: contains offensive language) pic.twitter.com/z2RetgKZOG— Dan Roan (@danroan) March 1, 2018
Whilst Jones has earned something of a reputation for being somewhat antagonistic at times in his media duties, the general feeling in the rugby world is that such behaviour is completely unacceptable, regardless of how one feels about Jones himself.
Few, if any, commenters online are condoning the abuse, with the vast majority of rugby fans agreeing with Scottish Rugby’s statement that it "does not reflect the values of our sport or its fans,"
Probably the most common response to the incident is that it is somehow at odds with the spirit of rugby, that such behaviour should not be considered as representative of the sport and that those who behave in this way cannot truly be considered rugby fans.
Indeed, in the first paragraph of this article I referred to the perpetrators as "people with Scottish accents" as opposed to fans or supporters because, for many people, the idiots shouting abuse don’t qualify.
Regardless of their nationality, or who they were cheering for on Saturday (if indeed they were actually following the game), their behaviour exempts them from being classed as "real' rugby supporters.
This raises an interesting question around how we define fandom in the modern game.
Rugby, rightly or wrongly, claims a reputation as a sport with unique values; sportspersonship, camaraderie, friendliness and acceptance, where all the aggression takes place on the field of play and everyone comes together afterwards to share a beer in harmony.
Of course, it’s not as simple as all that.
Abuse from spectators towards players and officials rears its head with disappointing frequency (and is getting worse), and the supposed mutual respect between rival players disappears all too often.
That being said, the average rugby match elicits a far less hostile, more welcoming atmosphere than that of a comparable level football game.
Rugby is far less accepting of abuse of officials by fans or players, and even the most raucous of crowds often fall into respectful silence for opposition goal-kickers.
Rugby does, to a certain degree, do things differently.
It’s worth considering therefore just what rugby fandom means in the 21st Century.
Since professionalism came in, there has been a marked change in pretty much every aspect of the sport, from skill level to player welfare to facilities to media coverage – but revered "rugby values" have retained the air of gentlemanly etiquette of their amateur heyday.
We still have certain expectations about what is or isn’t acceptable in rugby, be that on the field of play, in the stands or in our discussions around the game.
This can lead to conflict.
We still hold players and supporters to the unwritten rules that seemingly defined the sport in its early years, even if those rules may find themselves bumping uncomfortably against the reality of professionalism.
It’s hard for a defeated player to want to share a beer with their opponent knowing that that loss might mean relegation, the loss of a paycheque, a threat to their livelihood.
It’s hard for a player faced with the opportunity to take a dive after a clumsy challenge to stay on their feet, knowing that winning a penalty might win them the game, secure some silverware, bring their team and its supporters a reward for all their investment.
This conflict between old attitudes and modern pressures is central to the discussion about the Jones incident.
Whether we like it or not, rugby is growing as a sport, reaching new and unfamiliar audiences as it does so.
Engaging with those outside of rugby’s existing inner circle is essential for its growth, and indeed its survival.
This is a double-edged sword – more customers mean more money, but it also means less control over who engages with the product.
It’s like when you discover a new band and want to share their music with everyone, then get pissed off when they get big: rugby hasn’t quite sold out yet, but it’s certainly one Calvin Harris collaboration away from going mainstream.
The argument is that the people in the Jones video aren’t "real" supporters, but as the sport grows it’s inevitably going to start capturing audiences who aren’t au fait with rugby’s attitudes and values.
Does this automatically mean that those audiences aren’t "real" supporters?
How do we define who is a "real" supporter?
What do we do with those who don’t meet our criteria?
Don’t get me wrong, I think the people's behaviour is unacceptable not just in rugby, but indeed anywhere.
There’s a psychological concept called ‘bracketed morality’, which posits that there are certain circumstances wherein normal moral rules don’t apply, so we feel free to behave in a more aggressive or dishonest manner. Sport is probably the best example of such a context.
This is most likely largely responsible for the incident – those people hopefully do not behave that way towards every single person they meet.
Unfortunately, what the morons in the video don’t know (or don’t care about) is that rugby’s moral bracket is much narrower than many other sports.
Rugby has a much lower tolerance for abusive behaviour, and a much shorter time frame during which that abuse is in any way acceptable – once the final whistle blows, everyone’s friends again. In theory.
So what do we do to combat this?
It is ridiculous to think that we might need to explain to people that you don’t get to abuse someone just because they’re involved with an opposing sports team.
But then, there are warning labels telling people not to drink bleach or stick their hand into lion enclosures, so common sense perhaps has to take a back seat on this one.
We need to create a way in which those new to the sport can become acclimatised to its unspoken norms and learn the appropriate way to behave.
This might not be easy since not even “real” supporters seem to agree on everything – see the fury of the debate around whether it was okay for Bastareaud to call another player a “f****t”.
But it’s worth thinking about what we want the future of rugby to look like.
Regardless of how we feel about it, more and more people are going to be drawn to rugby as it expands all over the globe.
What picture do we want them to have of the sport we love?
I’m genuinely asking.
How would you define rugby’s values?
How should someone new to rugby behave?
What makes rugby unique?
In essence, what makes a “real” rugby supporter?