Image: Rugby ball / Samuel Ellis / Wikimedia Commons
One letter. Twenty-seven signatories. Thousands of voices – and counting.
The saga of the alleged abuse of a woman by members of the Chiefs rugby team isn’t new news to most everyone in Aotearoa, nor is the fact that players will not face criminal charges and will not be disciplined by New Zealand Rugby (as of now) for what is alleged to have occurred. But what is new is this: people are finally talking about the fact the “boys will be boys” culture of rugby needs to change.
That would be incredible.
This has the potential to be a watershed moment. It’s an opportunity to make important changes – to show that we can both love rugby and not be misogynists. It’s one reason why the hashtag associated with the Human Rights Commission’s letter – #loverugbyrespectwomen – is so brilliant.
“Rugby is like a religion in New Zealand, with players worshipped by young kiwis throughout the country,” the letter reads in part. “NZ Rugby could not operate without thousands of women volunteers and players in clubs and towns across the country: we must address the culture that exists from the top down and set the right example, particularly for our young New Zealanders.”
Many of us have long known the culture surrounding rugby needs to change, that our idolisation of our sporting heroes often makes us blind to their faults. But nobody is blameless, and when they are at fault, they need to be held accountable.
That’s what makes us human.
This is not an attack on rugby. The game is like religion for many, and is part of what defines us as a nation. That’s why it’s so important that rugby reflects our values, that – as Dr Jackie Blue's letter states – we treat everyone with “integrity, mana, respect and basic personal rights.”
Aside from the letter’s signatories – among whom are Dame Susan Devoy, Sue Kedgley from UN Women, many Māori and Pasifika women’s leaders and MPs – are many others who have said the time for change is now, including John Key and Steve Hansen.
Let’s not let the opportunity go to waste.
The fact the inquiry into the Chiefs was conducted by an unnamed lawyer who works for New Zealand Rugby is not OK. He was tasked with investigating claims that put his client’s reputation at risk – meaning there was little chance he would come to an unbiased conclusion, and presenting a conflict of interest. The fact that Scarlette, the woman alleged to have been abused, was later let go by her agency – allegedly because of the incident involving the Chiefs – is also unacceptable. A second stripper who was allegedly maltreated by the Chiefs in 2015 was not interviewed in the probe. Scarlette was interviewed last. There are still many questions as to what happened.
But the thing is, we’re talking about those things now, openly. It’s similar to American college football, where a series of horrific scandals (such as revelations of decades of monstrous child sex abuse by a coach at Pennsylvania State University) led to a culture change that – though far from perfect – is at least moving in the right direction towards treating everybody with the equal respect they observe, and understanding what consent is.
We should have had this conversation long ago, but the time truly is now to hold our sports heroes to the highest possible standards. The conclusion of the letter says it best: “As much as New Zealanders love rugby – we need New Zealanders to respect women.”
Note to readers: you can read the open letter, which you can also add your signature to, in its entirety here.