“Both aspects of the Middlebury rugby culture combine to promote the complex, and often contradictory, masculinity of the twenty-first century western hemisphere in an attempt to make each player the ‘perfect man’”, so muses first year student, Jordan Weiss ’12, in her first year seminar essay on the Middlebury men’s rugby team. Her assignment was to pick a cultural group at Middlebury and study their culture through their movement and knowing nothing about rugby Jordan picked the MCRC. Having already met senior prop Israel Carr ’09 gave her an “in” to the team. Read on to see Jordan’s scholarly and complimentary take on the boys in blue:
04 December 2008
The Two Faces of Rugby Football
Slightly effeminate, paleontologist Ross decides he has to impress his British girlfriend, Emily, by showing her how tough and manly he can be. Despite numerous warnings from friends, he insists on joining some of Emily’s friends for a pick-up rugby game. Throughout the game, the viewers see the brutality of rugby and the toughness of its players compared to Ross who confesses at half-time that he thinks he is literally dying. He refuses to quit, however, so Emily, in a last attempt to save her boyfriend, reveals each of the other players’ weaknesses. It is certainly meant to be humorous, and highlight Ross’ lack of masculinity, that a woman helps him with his rugby game. After the game, Ross is shown unable to walk but extremely happy regardless because, we learn, he made a man twice his size cry.
This “F.R.I.E.N.D.S.” episode illustrates how rugby is perceived by the public in the United States as brutally physical. It also connects this brutal physicality with the idea of masculinity. Ross clearly believes that playing rugby will make him more masculine, and therefore attractive, in Emily’s eyes. In other words, he expects his actions on the rugby field to affect his image off the field. Coming into this project, the only introduction to rugby I had ever really gotten was from this episode. I expected an extremely violent sport with huge, caveman-like players, who most likely did not feel pain. I was thus surprised to find some of the warmest, most relaxed people I have ever met. True, their sport is brutal and physically taxing, but off the field, there is none of the over-kill machismo I expected. Instead, I found a culture centered around community, fraternity, and most importantly, being a gentleman. On the field, the players prove their masculinity through brutality, aggression, and physical domination, but off the field, masculinity is portrayed through good manners, kindness to others, and high moral standards.
Historians generally accept that early ancestors of rugby football existed as far back as the Roman Empire; however, it is during the Medieval Period that the sport begins to truly resemble rugby played today. During this era, the definition of masculinity was undergoing a transformation. The ideal man of the upper classes and noblesse remained rather effeminate, by today’s standards, with powder and perfumes and wigs. This lifestyle was both unavailable to, and highly impractical for, the menial labor of the lower classes. As a result, the lower classes developed their own idea of masculinity, one of roughness and toughness and physical strength (Dunning and Sheard, 19-39).
Just as noblemen proved their worth on the ordered, structured battle fields of the Middle Ages, the men of the working class found a place to highlight their raw physical superiority in the wild, unruly game of rugby. Indeed, the parallel between war and rugby was suggested by one man when he said, “the excitement [in rugby] is akin to that aroused in battle,” (Dunning and Sheard 22). I noticed a great deal of war symbolism was prevalent in these early forms of rugby. The players were pseudo-warriors, and the field was the battle-ground. Rugby provided lower-class men with a chance to symbolically guard and protect their “territory,” giving them a feeling of strength and power. De Saussure points out that a sign’s meaning is arbitrary, so the fact that war symbolism indicates power and strength and that power and strength are associated with masculinity gives insight into the social constructs of masculinity of the time (Longhurst et al., 29).
The utter lack of rules and the emphasis on dealing out the greatest amounts of pain possible to one’s opponents made this early rugby entirely chaotic and wild. An excerpt from some 1553 documents found in Chester, England illustrate the violence and brutality of the sport: “much harme was done, some in the greate thronge falling into a trance, some having their bodies bruised and crushed; some their arms, heades or legges broken, and some otherwise maimed or in peril of their lives,” (Dunning and Sheard, 21).
This quote shows the dangers and risks of this sport resulting from the emphasis on physical toughness and pain. Toughness and strength became synonymous with masculinity, and consequentially, how well one played rugby was seen as an accurate gauge for one’s masculinity.
From the Middle Ages to the time of King Edward I, rugby was often prohibited by those in power because of the risk it posed to public safety and order. This proved entirely ineffective. People continued to play the sport, and on the rare occasions that a prohibition was enforced, open fighting would break out throughout England as a result of the elimination of rugby, men’s outlet for aggression and rage. Despite these futile attempts by the upper classes, rugby remained commonplace among the lower-class sectors of societies (Dunning and Sheard, 20-22).
In the early 19th century, this early rugby infiltrated England’s boys’ public schools, marking a turning point in the sport’s form and organization. Early rugby was anything but uniform, and students inevitably brought with them varied forms of playing from their towns and regions, adding to the chaotic nature of the game by making misunderstandings and confusion integral parts of the game. As opposed to school sports today, early rugby in boys’ public schools was under a system of self-rule. The games were run by the students, not the school-masters, who, in fact, often discouraged the sport just as kings and lords had in previous centuries. The infiltration of rugby into these public schools first created the need for uniform rules in rugby, and it was during the mid-1800s that written rules for the game began to appear. One set of these rules, written in the 1840s by the students of The Rugby School became the standard set of rules used when schools played against each other, which explains the sport’s current name (Dunning and Sheard 40-53).
Also similar to previous centuries was the boys’ use of this early rugby. By the 1800s, the powdered wigs and perfume of the nobility had given way to the rugged physical prowess of the lower classes as accepted markers of masculinity. Boys played rugby to establish “manliness,” bringing de Saussure’s comments on semiotics back into play (Longhurst et al., 29). The extent of one’s future power and prestige in life was thought to be predictable based on the strength and vigor displayed on the field. Actually, many parents sent their sons to these schools for this express purpose, to gain social toughness and become “men” (Nauright1, 6; Dunning and Sheard, 42, 49-50).
Rugby truly began to take on its modern form in the late Victorian Era when the definition of masculinity underwent another renovation. As opposed to being based solely on physical strength and toughness, masculinity now began to be looked at as more a combination of physical strength and toughness with mental and physical self-control. Indeed, J.A. Mangan defines the “manliness” of modern Western society as a sometimes contradictory combination of, “success, aggression, and ruthlessness, yet victory within rules, courtesy in triumph, and compassion for the defeated,” (Chandler, 13-14). Norbert Elias credits this change in masculinity to the main social revolutions of the time, mainly the industrial revolution and, embourgeoisement, the shift in control from the landed aristocracy to bourgeois, or middle classes, that occurred as a result of the industrialization. Because hegemonic ideas are often controlled by the current group in power, these emerging middle classes defined the new ideologies of the time, including masculinity (Longhurst et al., 64). Changes in work ethic, often associated with the bourgeoisie and Protestantism, emphasized a level of self-control that had not previously been stressed. This in turn, led to the idea of “moral character,” and it was the combination of this “moral character” with the earlier valued physical strength that culminated in the new definition of masculinity, as illustrated through the shifts in rugby (Nauright1, 5, Chandler 14-17; Dunning and Sheard, 53, 57-62).
Rugby’s overall transformation is best exemplified through two changes, the elimination of “hacking,” kicking the opponent as he runs with the ball, and the increased presence of passing. In 1860, one “Old Rugbeian” published a comparison between the modern rugby and the rugby of his school years, just a few years earlier. He lamented the “emasculation” of the sport that he believes these changes caused. In fact, he argued that the ball was not even an important part of the “old” rugby, rather it was just used as an excuse for “hacking,” “scrummaging,” and generally inflicting as much pain as possible on the other team. He tells an anecdote of a scrummage that lasted for ten minutes before a bystander pointed out that the ball was not even under them anymore and was in clear reach of anyone who had stopped wrestling long enough to notice. Perhaps more importantly, is the way he tells this story, for his tone suggests disgust for the bystander for pointing this out when they were clearly in the middle of a perfectly good scrum! This same “Old Rugbeian” claimed that in his day, passing the ball was seen as a cowardly attempt to avoid being “hacked,” not as a legitimate way to get the ball across the field. The formal elimination of “hacking” in rugby illustrates that violence and brutality were no longer considered to be the sole foci in rugby. Instead, there was equal emphasis on physical self-control, and strength, skill, and coordination were utilized to realize the main objective of the game, which was to score goals. Therefore, it was at this point in time that the chaos of rugby gave way to the sort of “controlled chaos” that still characterizes the sport today (Chandler 19-20; Dunning and Sheard, 82-84).
This shows the extreme fluidity of the definition of masculinity. Chandler and Nauright agree that, “manhood ideologies are not immutable constructs but are adaptations to social environments which are part of the material conditions of life in various societies during particular time periods,” or more concisely, “what manly has meant varies depending upon cultural and material conditions,” (Nauright2, 246). Even hegemonic ideas, which often seem natural and self-evident, are part of a fluid process that constantly shifts and changes over time. This very post-modernist and post-structuralist view follows the teachings of Nietzsche, Lyotard, and Baudrillard, who argue that, “there exists no one true meaning, no one true reality,” (Longhurst et al., 41-42). Masculinity itself has no definite meaning; instead, its connotations are entirely dependent on the perceptions of an individual culture. What Elias is careful to point out is that just as the social changes of the era occurred gradually over a period of time, so did the changes in rugby. They are the unintentional result of interactions between many different people, a “collective invention,” not a result of one man’s actions. As Elias terms it, the changes were “men-made,” not “man-made,” (Dunning and Sheard, 53).
Both the chaotic violence of the Medieval Period and the “moral character” of the Late Victorian Era reveal themselves in present-day rugby. The rugby section of The Book of Rules, a comprehensive book of rules for modern-day sports, reveals this ever-present, contradictory combination. First, the very fact that rugby alone takes up eight large pages of the book shows that rugby’s appearance as a somewhat lawless sport is misleading. In fact, many detailed rules exist. However, it seems as though these rules are only attempting to control chaos, not eliminate it. The author himself says, “Rugby League features fewer stoppages of plays, fewer set plays, and a wide-open style of play that – to the uninitiated observer – borders on chaos,” (Tunnicliffe, 38). For instance, the book offers a long list of positions, separated into forwards and backs, all with specific names and numbers. However, the book gives very little explanation about the individual jobs of each position, and as I watched the Middlebury team play, all I could tell was whether somebody was a forward or a back; I could not tell what position each man was supposed to be playing, leading me to the conclusion that, at least to an outsider, there is little differentiation between the positions. This is illustrative of how rugby is ordered but appears not to be. Another thing that struck me is that just like other well-known sports, the dimensions of the rugby field are very specific. Immediately, I associated these dimensions with “borders,” or an attempt to contain the chaos of rugby.
The language of The Book of Rules is also very revealing. The author explains that points are scored by getting the ball into the “opponents’” end-zone (Tunnicliffe 38). This language connotes a much more territorial and aggressive action than trying to get the ball into one’s own end-zone or even just a non-specified end-zone. The image these words conjured up for me was of a male dog or wolf marking his territory with urine to keep other males away. Clearly, this is a very masculine image. Also, this image suggests that the definition of masculinity as physically tough and aggressive is natural or instinctive, which is clearly not true as seen through the above history.
Another example of loaded language is found in the author’s definition of tackling. He states, “players use a mix of force and determination to overcome opponents…” (Tunnicliffe, 42). The author has taken something generally thought of as purely physical and added a mental element by using the word “determination.” My interview with a senior on Middlebury’s rugby team confirmed the significance of the mental and physical aspects of rugby, placing equal emphasis on each (Anon1). Not only does this imply the importance of the mental or “moral character” developed in the Late Victorian Era, it also suggests that a man’s performance on the field is indicative of his personality off the field. Therefore, if what I have found is true, that force and determination are key components of today’s notions of masculinity, then one’s performance on the field is indicative of one’s overall masculinity.
This blend of physical strength, toughness, and coordination with mental prowess and intelligence manifests itself in the Middlebury Men’s Rugby Team’s practices and games. The first practice I observed took place on a dark, wet, freezing evening, yet either the players did not notice the miserable weather or they were pretending not to. Either way, most of them were wearing shorts and t-shirts, sliding in a mixture of snow-melt and mud, while I stood shivering completely dry in my down jacket. They would not hesitate to throw their bodies in the snow in order to gain possession of the ball, demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice their bodies and physical comfort for the good of the team. Manliness in the form of sacrifice can be seen in battle as well, where dying for the good of one’s nation is considered glorious and heroic. Coincidentally, or not, this sacrifice for the good of the team also happens to offer the perfect opportunity to display personal toughness and strength. The physical toughness is stressed again by watching the forwards practice. The forwards are usually the bigger players, whose job it is to engage in scrums so that the backs can regain possession of the ball. In one practice, I witnessed multiple players get injured as a result of the practice scrums, but after getting bandaged or taped, they would run right back into the thick of things.
There seems to be heavy focus on using different players’ strengths to the team’s advantage. Just as the forwards distinguish themselves through their size and strength, the backs are known for their speed, endurance, and coordination. The backs ran without stopping for nearly the entire practice, showcasing extreme endurance. Also, while running, they would pass or kick the ball while criss-crossing through and around each other to avoid hypothetical opponents that may be there during a game. These maneuvers seemed to require a good amount of both hand-eye and foot-eye coordination. As someone with much better hand-eye coordination than foot-eye coordination, I found kicking the ball extremely difficult. I was impressed, therefore, by the broad range of skills inhabited by the rugby players.
Another theme I noticed throughout my observations of the practices was the conflicting presences of chaos and control. While plays do exist in rugby, they seem to be more like broad outlines than detailed plans. The Middlebury Team uses abbreviations of letters and numbers to identify what will be done and which player will do it. For instance, if three players are running in a line, and *** is called out, the second and third players will scissor across each other in order to pass the ball and avoid the opposing team. Outlining the basics for a play in this way allows flexibility on the field, but it also creates a feeling of chaos for any onlooker because many decisions about what to do are made on the spot. A play does offer some guidelines, reaffirming the chaos within boundaries, or self-contained strength, that defines modern masculinity and permeates every aspect of rugby.
The coach’s language also illustrates this balance of chaos and order. He described plays that displeased him as “sloppy.” I think of sloppy as a negative word for something messy or lacking precision. Therefore, the coach’s use of this word implies that he wanted the plays to have an orderly feel. What is interesting is that all of the action on the feel seemed chaotic to me, both the plays of which he approved and disapproved. Clearly, as an outsider, I was unable to see the subtle differences between the chaos that he disliked and the ordered chaos he was looking for. The coach certainly wanted the players to be tough and play hard, but he also seemed to want them to think about their actions and execute them cleanly. He expects his rugby players to characterize the idealized, and often contradictory masculinity as defined above by Mangan.
The culture during the games clearly reflects the culture promoted during practice by the coach. The Middlebury Team is one of a few college teams in the country that performs the “Haka Chant,” originally a war chant that is now performed by the New Zealand Rugby team, before taking the field. The players line themselves up into a pyramid, with one of the captains acting as leader. The leader and team then take part in responsive chanting in loud, deep voices, while beating their hands against their thighs and chests. This chant oozed manliness and machismo, evoking a sense of physical brutality often associated with cavemen. This suggests that masculinity as defined by muscles and toughness is “natural” or “instinctive,” rather than socially defined, which is not the case. Nevertheless, it certainly serves as an intimidation factor against the other team with this performance of their “masculinity.” The Haka Chant’s war origins shows that although the definition of masculinity is constantly evolving, it still possesses some similarities to its Medieval definition in that it views battle as the ultimate masculine activity. Also, the fact that they illustrate their masculinity in such an organized fashion highlights the combination of aggression and restraint, order and chaos.
I also witnessed this toughness and aggression in the way the Middlebury team played once the game actually started. At one point, a Middlebury player tackled a member of the opposing team so hard that I heard his head hit the grass and his shoulder pop out of socket from my seat on the sidelines. There was no discernable difference between the two players’ sizes or muscle masses, rather the Middlebury player obviously played more vigorously and aggressively than the other player. Players were constantly ramming into one another and scrumming. Sometimes, there would be a pile of players all wrestling over the ball. These scrums seemed entirely chaotic, reminiscent of adolescent boys in a group wrestling match. I noticed the same pattern of sacrificing one’s body in order to advance the ball that I witnessed in practice with similar painful looking results. Despite the obvious presence of unruly aggression, I did notice that the Middlebury team made an effort, successfully, to maintain some hint of organization. Overall, the Middlebury players seemed much more disciplined than their opponents, unleashing their strength and aggression sometimes while reining it in at other times. Actually, watching them play, they seemed to me, the epitome of “controlled chaos,” and masculinity.
Finding this right balance of physical aggression and self-control must be crucial because the Middlebury team, which excelled in both areas, won the game. The other team did not seem as tough or as disciplined, and, as a result, they lost. I do not know why the Middlebury team outperformed its opponent. Considering Middlebury does not officially recruit for rugby and there are many players on the team who had never played before joining, I doubt it is a result of more experience. Also, after seeing the circumstances that the rugby team is forced to practice in because it is not a varsity sport, I can say with some certainty that it is not a result of better resources. Therefore, I must conclude that it is simply the result of good coaching, hard practices, and determined players. Regardless of the actual reason, the on-field culture of the Middlebury Men’s Rugby Team is one of both physical strength and self-restraint, a combination that defines the ideal masculinity of the twenty-first century Western hemisphere.
Although the culture on the field is one of toughness and strength, the culture of the field is one of “moral character” and community. This idea of “moral character” was also developed around the time of embourgoisement and industrialization and reflected the Social Darwinism of the time. Overall, it stressed the importance of acting “civilized,” which included being a practicing Protestant Christian and displaying the good manners of the time. This politeness focused on humility, sensitivity, and the “proper” treatment of women, which combined, form the definition of the perfect “gentleman” (Dunning and Sheard, 62-63). After the game, there was no loud bragging, just encouraging remarks on a game well-played. The Middlebury team ate lunch with the opposing team afterward, and the Middlebury players waited until everyone else had eaten before getting in-line for food, which was very different from their aggressive nature during the game. They especially made sure that any girl or woman present had the chance to get food before them, which subconsciously confirms women’s dependence on men as providers. In my interviews I learned that the previous coach had often stressed the importance of “being a gentleman,” a gender-role that stems from the Late Victorian Era just like the definition of masculinity that I use in this study (Anon1; Anon2). From what I have seen, the current coaches also expect this of their players. Clearly, maintaining a sense of masculinity is just as important off the field as it is on the field, yet it is done in an entirely different way.
Community and fraternity play big parts in the rugby culture here at Middlebury. Outside of games and practices, the rugby team eats meals together and hangs out together on weekends. Some of the upperclassmen even live together. Despite this obviously very close-knit community, the players seemed very inclusive of outsiders. I talked to a girlfriend of one of the players on the team who said she definitely noticed a difference in atmosphere between the rugby parties and the parties of other sports teams. She said she always found the players very inviting and inclusive (Anon2). I also found this to be the case in my interactions with the team. I never felt ignored or excluded when I sat with them at meals, and I was invited multiple times to hang out with them on weekend nights. Unlike members of other sports teams, the Middlebury rugby players seem to leave all of the aggression and toughness out on the field, making them much more approachable people off the field. When asked about this, one rugby player claimed that the coaches, both past and current, are in large part responsible for this. The coaches take it upon themselves to teach the players about the correct conduct for rugby players on the field and off the field. What one player does reflects on the team as a whole; therefore, each player must take responsibility for his actions for the good of the team (Anon1). I saw a parallel in this concept to the physical self-sacrifice of a player for the good of the team on the field. Thus, the Middlebury rugby culture has been molded to produce the “idealized man” of western, twenty-first century culture both on and off the field.
Outsiders’ views of rugby as a brutal sport with an utter lack of control are oversimplified. Until studying the sport and interacting with the players, I, too, was guilty of these judgments. True, ancestral forms of rugby tended to fit these generalizations; however, modern rugby is just as much about self-control and “moral character” as it is about physical strength and aggression. This transformation in rugby reflected the changing idea of masculinity during the Late Victorian Era. Also, it would be a mistake to study the on-field culture of rugby as a separate entity from the culture of its players off the field. The Middlebury team and coaches in particular, place significant emphasis on the players’ behavior off the field. Just as players are expected to be strong, tough, and aggressive on the field, they are expected to be kind, moral, and gentlemanly off the field. Both aspects of the Middlebury rugby culture combine to promote the complex, and often contradictory, masculinity of the twenty-first century western hemisphere in an attempt to make each player the “perfect man.”
Anon, Personal interview. 19 NOV 2008. (Anon1)
Anon, Personal interview. 22 NOV 2008. (Anon2)
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*Special thanks to Israel Carr and the Middlebury College Men’s Rugby Team