14 Sep 2016

Changing rugby's 'macho' culture

From Nine To Noon, 11:25 am on 14 September 2016

The reputation of New Zealand Rugby and the Chiefs has taken a considerable hammering of late.

First for allegations of abusive behaviour towards a woman hired to strip for them, and then for failing to investigate the claims independently. 

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Since then New Zealand Rugby has met with sexual violence advocate Louise Nicholas, and plans to hire a ‘respect and responsibility manager’.

So how do you go about changing a sport’s off-field culture?

Professor Catharine Lumby consulted to the National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia following allegations of sexual assault by Canterbury Bulldog players in 2004.

She says the then CEO of the NRL, David Gallop, asked for her help as she was known for her work in this area.

“We talked and he said ‘what do you think I should do’?”

Prof Lumby says the first thing to do is to understand the culture and attitudes that underpin such behaviour.

“Once you get a measure of the culture, then you can design education programmes based on what you know about the culture.”

Her research into the Bulldogs in 2004 showed there were underlying problems.

“There was a culture at the time when women were being used as sexual currency, they became invisible in what the boys called a ‘gee up’ a big male bonding session.”

She says a long-established culture exists in Australia of male bonding by sports teams.  

“Some of this male bonding stuff is around sex, and it also involves a lot of drinking, some of that I’m convinced has not always been consensual.”  

Some players who spoke to her were troubled.

Prof. Catharine Lumby

Prof. Catharine Lumby Photo: catharinelumby.com

“We had players call us and say they wanted to come and talk confidentially and burst in to tears - and say a lot of it was about the silence.

“A lot of them felt they’d done things, they’d witnessed things, particularly on away games and they had a wife or they had a girl friend or simply they were a compassionate person about women.”

She says they carried it around, and carried around the guilt.

"What you found was maybe 20 percent of guys had been leading the pack, but then you’ve got all these guys in the middle who really didn’t like what was going on, didn’t like the codes of silence and had seen women treated really badly and felt horrible about it.”

The education process at the Bulldogs allowed these men to open up and one of the results of her work was what she called "peer mentoring".

“The captain of the team, he might be the captain, but he may not be the most respected guy.

“Who’s the leader of the fun and games and who’s really respected, they’re usually a different person.”  

Her work with the Bulldogs encouraged early intervention in a situation that could get out of hand

“Work as a team, if your mate’s really blotto, or he’s doing the wrong thing, get him out of the situation.

“Intervene stop a good night going wrong.”

There are many influencers within a sports club but the coach and management are critical, she says.

“One of the things about the NRL, it can’t just be about the players. If they’re being told about how to behave at the pre-season launch, but then the management is there drinking 87 schooners - that’s not a good look.”