All these fancypants mens magazines run segments trying teach impressionable boys who’ve yet to make a decision on their own how to drink more thoughtfully/ responsibly/ fashionably/ manlyly. Instead of that, every St. Thursday’s Eve we’re gonna learn y’all drunkards how to think. Here we go…
It’s already St. Thursday, and we’re still thinking about rugby. (And perhaps still a little hungover.) Mostly we’re thinking about the ways the sport and the surrounding culture differ so greatly from most American endeavors in sport and fandom.
Let’s be perfectly clear: I HAVE NEVER PLAYED RUGBY. Temper your judgment of my previous and future rugby ramblings thusly. I have watched plenty of games; on television, live, high school, collegiate, highest American club divisions, and national teams. But I have never set foot on a pitch while the match was in play. The closest I came was running touch for my wife’s high school girls club in the Bay Area. So perhaps a rugby fan creation myth is in order…
My first introductions to the sport were ESPN and other sports channels late at night. As a high school soccer player, I watched international rugby and Aussie rules football matches both cringing and awestruck. Every “that is the toughest motherfucker I’ve ever seen” moment was also a “there but for the grace of god go my ribs” moment. As an athlete at a Small Liberal Arts College In the NorthEast (SLACINE©), I was recruited to play rugby, but politely declined, telling the coach I valued my clavicles in one piece.
And then I met (what’s the best introduction here?) a wonderful woman who played college and club rugby, and also coached a high school girls team. Me: “Rugby? High school girls? Holy shit. That’s cool.” Her: “You should come out and help me coach.” At this point I was still trying to conjure a list of the females I went to high school with that would’ve played rugby. It ended at 5.
It was the first game I went to, as the happy coach’s-boyfriend-observer, that had me hooked. I’ll shock you – it wasn’t the speed and quality of play at that level that grabbed me. It was afterward, when the girls from both sides gathered at the middle of the pitch (which was really just a flat stretch of park) and sat together, ate together, and traded “player of the match” honors. I was stupefied.
I grew up playing soccer, and while my game was also imported from England, the culture surrounding it was, and I think still remains, definitively American. Playing soccer we hated our opponents before, during, and after the game – our animosity never wavered. Basically, the mental approach to games was just like football, only the rules were different. The thought that we would commune with the other team and exchange pleasantries after a game was so completely alien. And so…British. I recalled my college soccer coach, an Englishman, describing Premiere League players smoking cigarettes on the sidelines of professional games, playing all out during the game, then carousing again afterward. It displayed a contrast in professionalism. In America, winning matters and it matters all the time – you wear your war face perpetually. What my soccer coach hinted at, and what the high school girls players proved, was a sense that winning matters during the game, on the field – and afterward, off the field, we’re all athletes working hard; good for all of us.
There may be a couple explanations why rugby in America has retained that British mentality while soccer has not. First, while some soccer fans complain about the sport being marginalized in the media (the constant “has soccer arrived in the US” versus “Americans will never love soccer” bloviating is enough to send some of us into seizures), rugby truly remains an outsider culture in the States. There are no “rugby mom” campaigns, political, minivan, or otherwise. Millions of kids aren’t playing rugby in neighborhood under-10 leagues – most American players don’t begin until college. That’s not to say that youth programs don’t exist, but compared to soccer in America, rugby might as well be curling. (That’s not a dig, I promise.) Being an outsider sport gives birth to a unique camaraderie between combatants; somewhere between “Oh wow, you do this, too?” and “Hey – I know we just tried to beat the shit out of each other, but there’s only so many of us out there – have a beer.”
This first reason became perfectly clear this weekend and this week. Fans at the tournament, for the most part, couldn’t care less who you cheered for – they seemed just happy you were around and cheering (and drinking) too. It was definitely a “Hey, isn’t it great this tournament exists and we all get to hang out and see this” vibe. Contrast that to watching the Barcelona/Bayer Leverkusen match in a pub on Tuesday. Two seats over on the bar was (I think) a Spaniard, rooting for Barca along with me, and in between an Englishman who seemed grumpy by everything Barcelona did. At halftime the Spaniard asked who his team was, to which he replied, “Anyone but Barcelona.” While the Spaniard engaged him in his reasoning, I could feel a knee-jerk anger rising in me. That old American fuck-the-other-team mentality. I could feel that opposition actually affected the way I discussed the team with the Englishman: instead of a rational “sure they dive more than I like, but the moments of brilliance are worth it” argument, I countered with the apologist and antagonistic “British teams dive all the time, too” response. Later I was embarrassed – can’t we, or I, approach watching soccer in a pub the same way as watching rugby in a stadium? Perhaps not, since soccer viewing in America, as infrequent as it was even 15 years ago, has progressed beyond the “Hey isn’t it great we even get to watch this game” point of history.
Rugby is making strides in the US: I was in Denver and followed my wife’s women’s team go from dragging coolers, dogs, and BBQ’s to a park to throw up posts and play a match, to bagpipe- and Jumbotron-accompanied entrances at their own rugby-specific stadium. Part of me loves that rugby gets more exposure because it’s such a great sport. The other part of me worries that if rugby loses that outsider sport status, all of the awful, American side-effects will follow.
The other reason rugby has been less Americanized than soccer was proposed by a former player a few months back. All sports are competitive and create an oppositional energy that asks for a physical release. Most American sports, however, limit physical contact as much as possible. Even football prescribes its hitting very carefully. Rugby, on the other hand, is a constant flow of physical engagement: tackle, ruck, pass, repeat. Therefore, rugby players have ample opportunity to expel that competitive energy. By the end of an 80-minute match, that energy is just about sapped. Meanwhile, soccer, baseball, basketball, and even football players have far fewer chances to deplete that oppositional force. (Perhaps this explains the explosion in players and fans for every huge hit in football- that pressure finally being released.) Thus that force remains after games, through to the next, creating a constant competitive tension that never wears off; a tension felt by fans as well.
For whichever, or whatever other reason, rugby culture is unique. The players are hard, perhaps a bit crazy, and play that way between the lines and then leave it there, off to party with momentary enemies. Fans are along for the party. Something I’ll try to think about, the next time I feel like sneering at another team or their fans.