Painful truths about rugby culture

Opinion: Brian O’Driscoll’s comments raise disturbing questions


One of the most memorable moments or sequence of moments in sport or perhaps in national life in the last while was the effusion of affection, respect, admiration and gratitude that flowed on Brian O’Driscoll last Saturday week in Lansdowne Road, towards the end of the match against Italy – and after it. As he came off the pitch there was an emotional standing ovation lasting several minutes, when his image appeared on the big screens in the stadium, there was more, and yet more again after the end of the game.

All so deserved because of the joy he gave to so many of us for 14 years now, because of that modesty, mingled with such brilliance, bravery and commitment. How he handled the adulation was almost as touching: again that modesty, gratitude for the warmth of the support; and an absence of ego or self-regard.

Because the match against France last Saturday, even through there was such jubilation over the victory and the wining of the Six Nations Championship in Paris, it seemed flat in comparison with what had happened the Saturday before.

Such a pity he plays for Leinster.

But I want to reflect on something he said in an interview with Gerry Thornley, published in this newspaper on March 1st.

He was speaking about how, over the years, his body had become less timid had he had come to the realisation that there was nothing really to fear on a rugby pitch. “Getting hurt? You recover from it. And the pain does subside and I don’t know, in a really perverted way, legally inflicting pain on someone else gives you a thrill,” he said jokingly, according to Gerry Thornley. Then in reference to the Welsh centre who creased him in the match against Wales a few weeks previously and who seemed to have caused him a serious injury – he remained on the ground for a few minutes, while administered to by the medical staff – he said: “Scott Williams must have taken huge satisfaction in absolutely annihilating me in that tackle”.

In saying this, Brian O’Driscoll was doing no more than expressing some of the culture of rugby: legally inflicting pain on an opposing player, annihilating them in a tackle. Violence was no part of Brian O’Driscoll’s armour as one of the world’s greatest rugby players. Indeed he was invariably the recipient of violence – many of us remember vividly the spear tackle on him in the opening minutes of the first test of the Lions versus New Zealand in 2005, which broke his collar bone and ended his tour. But, unavoidably, he has imbued the culture of rugby, even to the extent of admiring harm done to himself.

But that culture is a dysfunctional one and, ultimately dangerous. It is part of the culture that speaks of “manly”, that admires a male “standing up like a man”, or in the cringe-making lingo of the rugby world, that urges players to “man up”.

Donncha O’Callaghan’s autobiography was published a few years ago and a feature of that were the stories of casual violence that arose on rugby pitches and even on training grounds. Donncha O’Callaghan is someone else I admire and from what I know of him he is a decent, generous person, but again he was offering an insight into the “manliness” of the rugby world.

The image many of us males have of what it means to be a man, is disturbing and it doesn’t much differ from the rugby world’s ideal. One feature it surely does not include is homosexuality – the ideal man, hegemonic man, is certainly heterosexual, perhaps aggressively so. A bit prone to violence or at least “able to look after himself” – ie able to beat the bejasus out of anyone who challenges him. A capacity to drink enormous amounts of pints – sensibly of course – is almost de rigeur. And being a good man with the girls, lots of girls.

The posh private all-male schools do their bit to engender this culture, as does the media and, classically, rugby does it too. Less so the GAA and, I think, soccer.

It isn’t just the social boorishness that is the problem with this, it is the homophobia, the misogyny, or at least the patriarchy that goes with it – the idea that the world is there for the men, the business, political and professional world certainly, although to put a decent gloss on it in modern times we let the women in a bit. But for the most part women are there for decoration, sex and procreation, of course.

And, no, I am not saying Brian O’Driscoll and or Donncha O’Callaghan are representative of this sort of hegemonic masculinity – Brian O’Driscoll seems very different from that and so too I understand from people who know him, is Donncha O’Callaghan. But that the icon of modern rugby should speak of a thrill in legally inflicting pain on someone else, is, well, disturbing.

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