Enjoyed Ireland’s loss to Japan? Time to decommission your sportupmanship
Tipping Point: When it gets distilled down it comes back to people not liking people
Ireland’s players react after the defeat to Japan in the Pool A game at the Ecopa stadium in Shizuoka on Saturday. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
As with everything, The West Wing is a useful text to consult in these feral times. And so, class, please turn your copybooks to Season 2 Episode 4, chapter title ‘In This White House.’ A Republican lawyer named Ainsley Hayes is arguing with White House staffer Sam Seaborn over gun control. Seaborn is talking about the disingenuous way that Republicans paint it as a personal freedom issue or one of public safety when really, he says, some people just like guns.
“Yes, they do,” replies Hayes. “But you know what’s more insidious than that? Your gun control position doesn’t have anything to do with public safety, and it’s certainly not about personal freedom. It’s about you don’t like people who *do* like guns. You don’t like the people.”
In the 48 hours since The Shizshow in Shizuoka, there have been nuclear levels of schadenfreude around the place. If we could only harness the heat and energy in the glee of Ireland’s non-rugby fraternity since Saturday morning, we could have Greta Thunberg back at school before Halloween. And through it all, the driving force hasn’t really been that people don’t like rugby. It’s far more that people don’t like the people who *do* like rugby.
Sportupmanship has always been a curse and the worst thing about it is that it’s almost never about the merits of one sport against another. People know in their hearts that all sports are silly. Whether through their upbringing, their location, their tribe or whatever, they just allow their own chosen silliness a little further into their hearts than the others.
It would be fine and dandy if that’s all it turned out to be. If it was just a matter of having this thing that you cherished, that was yours, that sang to you in a key none of the rest of them did. But for plenty of people, that’s never enough. Somehow, there is this need to dig a trench behind your chosen sport and to fire volley after volley at the others.
Funny how that isn’t the way with other realms of human pastime. Take any field of the arts, for example – film, music, books, whatever. Even on the dreary cesspool of Twitter, when’s the last time you saw a spat between defenders of a certain type of film genre? Marvel movies vs the ones they don’t make ‘em like anymore? You might get the odd bit of snark here and there but nothing overly vicious.
Or in music, when did you last hear of a good, old-fashioned online sort-out between mods and rockers? Granted, make a smart remark about One Direction on a Sunday night and you’ll know all about it come Monday morning but even then, death threats tend to wash over you when the ‘i’ in kill has a love heart rather than a dot over it. In general, people are happy to let people be people.
Sport is different. Maybe it’s the inherent confrontational nature of it, the fact that every sport comes down to proving that you are better than somebody else on some level. Maybe a bit of that spills over into general conversation and next thing you know, you’re sneering at lily-livered soccer players or overweight rugby players or blanket defences in Gaelic football. (Nobody sneers at hurling, of course. It’s not allowed. Which is the perfect thing to sneer at, obvs)
But when it gets distilled down to the pure drop, as it has since Saturday morning, it comes back to people not liking people. It has ever been thus, too. Go back to the worst case of sportupmanship the country has ever had – the GAA’s ban on foreign sports. Irish sport for Irish people, a brutalising piece of sporting apartheid, aimed squarely and unapologetically at those who weren’t like us. It’s a wonder the rugby or soccer or cricket fraternities ever forgave it.
When you face off one sport against others as a matter of policy, you are baking sportupmanship into the general populace. It doesn’t matter that the Ban went to its death 48 years ago. The battle lines it drew may have faded over time but if you look close enough you can still see them, like line markings on a multi-use pitch a few days after a game.
And in them, you can find hidden all the grim aspects of the human character that kept the Ban in place for as long as it did. The defiance, the insularity, the fear, the jealousy, the resentment. Above all the pious superiority. Whatever legitimate need there had been for it at the start had long since run its course by the 1970s. But there was a class of GAA man who saw himself as more pure, more Irish, more real than his rugby or soccer equivalent.
There still is. Most of the crowing since Saturday morning is rooted in the fact that there’s a large swathe of the population who think rugby is just an over-promoted, excessively-pushed game for poshos. And that, on the whole, it’s no real disaster that it’s fallen down around their ears yet again in a World Cup. There’s not a lot of nuance in such a view but there’s no point denying its existence.
Truth is, this has always been bubbling away under the surface. As the rugby industrial complex has gained in strength over the past 20 years or so, there has been a growing sense that rugby’s marketing people have misjudged their audience, both in size and flavour.
People either feel like they are part of something or they don’t. Just calling it Rugby Country doesn’t make it so. You can’t co-opt a Team Of Us without the ‘Us’ having a say in it. Most of ‘Us’ didn’t go to private school. Most of ‘Us’ can just about get the mortgage paid each month. Most of ‘Us’ would think twice about turning up at a rape trial as a show of support to the accused on the first day the victim was giving evidence. Pick your favourite of these and others and it’s no big surprise those ad campaigns feel like a mouthful of ashes to many.
But this was about more than ad campaigns. It was about more than hype, or the apparently unforgivable notion that went around after beating Scotland that Ireland had a chance to win the World Cup.
No, when it comes down to it, a lot of the enjoyment over the past few days was wanton reverse snobbery, people not liking people and expressing it through the whiny bugle drone of sportupmanship.
The least we can agree on is that none of it did any of us any credit.