Creating a National Identity in the Scrum

Studying rugby this quarter has focused my attention on the international dynamics that influence the sport. Here in America, rugby is largely an afterthought among the flurry of niche sports in this nation. There are few, if any, televised matches and there is not a popular domestic league. Rugby is most popular in Europe and in former European colonies. Despite being on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean South Africa and New Zealand have been similarly influenced by European colonialism and imperialism for the last few centuries. As a result, both nations have a sizable population of former white immigrants and a historically subjugated indigenous population. In both of these nations, rugby has historically excluded the indigenous people from participating in the sport for a period of time. As each nation tried to mask its racist past, gestures to symbolize racial harmony were used in international competitions. However, these gestures are cosmetic examples of nation building that allow racial norms to continue unquestioned despite seemingly being addressed.

While researching stereotypes associated with the sport of rugby I found that in South Africa participation in rugby has traditionally been a white privilege and excluded native Africans. Lloyd Hill examines how the sport became racialized in his essay, “Football code: the social diffusion of ‘soccer’ in South Africa.” Hill examines the socio-economic factors that influenced the development of both rugby and soccer in South Africa and how those influences have persisted over time. Rugby was introduced to South Africa in universities for those of European descent. Early rugby was limited to the collegiate level and during the Apartheid in South Africa indigenous black South Africans had no access to this “nascent English education system [that] fostered a general commitment to the ‘doxic’ ideals of masculine athleticism, which was then manifested in the promotion of specific English codes”(Hill 22-23). Marked as second-class citizens, the native black population was excluded from participation to maintain a white identity within the sport. In 1956 the nation started formalizing bans on minority players, effectively spreading Apartheid to the arena of sport. Prowess at the sport also factored into the development of rugby as a white sport:
“An English team visited South Africa in 1910 and was not seriously tested by the local teams. By the time of the first UK rugby tour in 1924 South African rugby teams established a dominant record over their English counterparts. These wins served to popularize rugby among whites and forge a generic sense of white nationalism, which would underpin the subsequent development of Afrikaner nationalism.” (Hill 23).
Soccer, on the other hand, was popularized through the non-elite white population in Africa and was more accessible for native Africans early in its development. As a result, black identity manifested itself to a degree in soccer as black athletes were excluded in rugby but not soccer during Apartheid.

Although racism was not nearly as blatant in New Zealand’s history, though the sport still functioned to promote a white national identity during the twentieth century, but on a more subtle level. South Africa’s population, according to their most recent census, is made up of eighty percent Black Africans and nine percent white people of European descent. New Zealand’s population is a bit different, sixty-nine percent of the population is of European descent and fifteen percent is native Maori. Despite this difference, European imperialism provided the white population with power over indigenous culture regardless of the size of the white population. Although the sport never gained a white elitist marking as it had in South Africa and was played by both natives and colonists during the nineteenth century. A tradition that seems to support a unification of indigenous and imperial races is the appropriation of “the haka,” an ancient Maori war dance, to become a pregame ritual before international competitions.

First performed in 1888, the haka has remained a mainstay in New Zealand rugby to this day and partially serves as a source of New Zealand nationalism. In a similar way to how Amy Bass explores how the Olympics plays out as a modern celebration of successful nation-building, rugby World Cup competition has also developed this to a point. In Bass’ article, she focuses on John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s protest during the 1968 Olympics and the international community’s response to their defiant actions. Bass argues that the U.S. sought to publicly condemn the actions as not representative of the nation as a whole, but “while they were not stripped of their medals, the loss of their credentials gave them forty-eight hours to leave Mexico”(Bass 192). The U.S. publicly condemned the actions yet was willing to accept the benefits that the athletes gained them in the interest of increasing their medal count. The twentieth century saw the rise of international competition and subsequently a new forum to demonstrate nationalism.

The haka allowed New Zealanders to develop a sense of national unity and bridge the indigenous and colonial histories. However, the continued tradition of the haka masks some racial incidents of the past that would undermine the perceived racial harmony of the New Zealand men’s national team. The most blatant examples of racism in New Zealand’s history occurred in 1928, 1949, and 1960 when Maori players were excluded from tours in South Africa. The players still performed the haka during these trips despite the exclusion of the players whose ancestors actually performed the dance for its intended purpose, a war dance. Ryan Hartigan wrote an essay exploring the history of the haka in New Zealand rugby, “Embarrassing Time, Performing Disunity Rugby, the haka, and Aotearoa-New Zealand in the United Kingdom.” Hartigan’ essay explores deeper issues of race present with the New Zealand men’s national team both historically and to this day by bringing up issues of race present in 1888 and 2008 respectively. When the haka was first introduced, Hartigan argues, “the representation of colonial civilization as progressive, figured against the portrayal of precolonial models of time and history as backward”(Hartigan), so by appropriating a war dance to become a pregame ritual for a game trivializes Maori culture and tradition. Hartigan’s example from 2008 relates to the performance of the haka by athletes of Pakeha descent. Historically, the Maori and Pakeha have waged wars for centuries and the haka actually results from war dances performed by Maori warriors before fighting the Pakeha. The irony of Pakeha athletes performing the haka in 2008 reflects how the haka acts as a façade of racial harmony and is not simply a light-hearted pre-game ritual.

For comparison, I look to Nelson Mandela’s public embrace of the South African men’s national rugby team during the 1995 Rugby World Cup held in South Africa. Mandela chose to put aside the racial undertones that had long dominated rugby in the country in the interests of national unity. The 1990s were a turbulent time in South Africa as the nation adjusted to its post-Apartheid form. Racial tensions between the elite white minority and the indigenous black majority still plagued the country, as documented by Lynette Steenveld and Larry Strelitz in their article “The 1995 Rugby World Cup and the Politics of Nation-building in South Africa.” In order to reduce the racial tensions present in the country, “then-recently elected Mandela attempt[ed] to promote a vision of South Africanism which transcended the primordial view of ethnic identity promoted by Apartheid ideology”(609). The fact that the 1995 national rugby team lacked any athletes of color shows that the sport became racially stratified at the social level and not just the professional level. Therefore, Mandela’s symbolic gesture of support for a national team that historically embodied white privilege and domination did not represent a change in the common view of rugby, but instead an attempt by a politician to forge a national identity. By rallying the native black majority behind the all-white national rugby team, Mandela injected a feeling of nationalism to the fledgling country.

To put gestures of racial harmony in perspective, Hugo Benavides writes of a symbolic action in American football that is similar to the symbolic gestures mentioned in this essay. In his “Football and the Nation: Producing American Culture,” Benavides cites an example of an African-American professional football player waving an American flag before a game in Mexico City. Aesthetically, rugby and football are very similar. A plethora of violence and a war-like matchup of two hyper-masculine groups define each sport. So for football and rugby to have a similar relationship to nation building makes sense because of the similarities between the sports. Benavides points to the contradictory ideology that dominates the American public’s view of football: “the superficial identification of football as American and a broader understanding of the complexity of American identity that are at the heart of football’s national representation”(Benavides). Rugby has similarly been superficially identified as a form of white identity historically as I have discussed earlier. As Benavides notes, a national identity is often too complex to be forged simplistically because of the diverse makeup of any nation. In the process of nation-building however, politicians often want to promote a national identity to build a stronger nation. Sports often serve as a platform to enact the promotion of a national identity.

My introduction to rugby this quarter was a very interesting experience. I did not expect to spend so much time focusing on international issues of race but since rugby is not popular here in the US that was the most logical launching point for further research. An interesting dynamic here at UCSD though came to my attention this quarter. The men’s and women’s rugby teams actively recruit athletic looking students to come and try the sport. Interestingly, unlike most of the places I researched and to my own personal surprise, the sport is not gender marked as a male sport, using Toni Bruce’s definition of the term gender marking. However, this is a topic for another day, but raises interesting new questions for further research and study.

Works Cited
Armstrong, Grahame. “Racist Stain on New Zealand Rugby Lingers.” Rugby Heaven. Stuff.co.nz. 2010. Web.
Bass, Amy. “Whose Broad Stars and Bright Stripes? Race, Nation, and Power at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.” in Sports Matter: Race, Recreation, and Culture (Ed. John Bloom & Michael Nevin Willard). New York and London: New York University Press, 2002. Web.
Benavides, O. Hugo. “Football and the Nation: Producing American Culture.” Oppositional Conversations 1. 2012. Web.
Bruce, Toni. “Reflections on Communication and Sport: On Women and Femininities.” Communication and Sport 1:1/2. 2012. Web.
Hartigan, Ryan. “Embarrassing Time, Performing Disunity Rugby, the haka, and Aotearoa-New Zealand in the United Kingdom.” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts. 2011. Web.
Hill, Lloyd. “Football as Code: The Social Diffusion of ‘soccer’ in South Africa.” Soccer and Society. January 1st, 2010. Web.
Steenveld, Lynette, and Larry Strelitz. “The 1995 Rugby World Cup and the Politics of Nation-building in South Africa.” Media Culture Society. October 1998. Web.

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