Why Not Play Rugby?

Here in America rugby has some perceived stereotypes about its athletes despite the sports relatively low popularity. Growing up, I frequently heard people say that rugby players are tougher than football players because they don’t wear pads yet subject their bodies to a similar beating. I particularly remember several references to rugby players getting their ears torn off during games. Rugby players frequently wear special ear protectors or simply use tape to cover their ears. Between the lack of pads and the ever-present danger to one’s ear lobes, rugby players are generally seen as tough guys akin to American football players. Muscularity is also commonly considered a pre-requisite to becoming a rugby player. However my friend that recently joined the UCSD Rugby team said that size and weight are overrated in rugby. He says small fast guys such as himself can add versatility to a team as long as they can handle the physicality of the game.

Outside the US in places where Rugby is more popular there are also socio-economic and racial stereotypes applied to athletes of the sport. In South Africa rugby has a long history of perceived racism that persists to this day. During the era of Apartheid, black people were not allowed to play Rugby and the sport became a sport for upper class white men. This led to the banning of the national team from the rugby World Cup until the Apartheid ended. I first heard about this situation when I was watching the World Cup in South Africa a few years ago. The broadcasters calling the game I was watching mentioned how soccer was predominantly a sport for the formerly subjugated black community of South Africa. Despite the Apartheid ending about twenty years prior to the World Cup, the stereotypes have become de facto and rugby remains a predominately white sport in the country and soccer remains predominately black.

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3 Responses to Why Not Play Rugby?

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    I really enjoy your attention to the racial history of rugby in South Africa. This could be a robust site for future exploration in the course. I wonder how this history ties in with the histories of colonialism both in South African and surrounding areas. These histories can help to explain the varying current conditions across different nations. What does the face of rugby look like in other places? Are there any similar racial dynamics or exclusions (de facto, of course)? What about other differences, such as gender and sexuality? How do you see yourself in relationship to these dominant images?

  2. Sarah McCullough says:

    I just ran across this dissertation on rugby in South Africa, and though it might be of interest to you. It won an award for being one of the best 50 dissertations in anthropology last year. If you wish to track it down, I’d recommend contacting the author directly.

    Confronting an Art of Uncertainty: Rugby, Race, and Masculinity in South Africa, by Joshua Rubin. Yale University. Advisor: William Kelly. This dissertation analyzes the intersection of the politics of post-apartheid South Africa and the politics of playing rugby. Rugby has a long and politically-charged history in South Africa. Organized and codified in England in the 19 th century, rugby arrived in southern Africa freighted with notions of bourgeois masculinity and imperial superiority. Afrikaner nationalists and the apartheid regime then refashioned the sport as a marker of Afrikaner identity. I show that sports, like artistic forms, have characteristics that recombine and challenge the symbols and sentiments they are assigned.

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