The reported abusive behaviour of members of the Chiefs rugby team towards the lone woman who they invited to their year-end party as an entertainer, and the knee-jerk follow up reaction by New Zealand Rugby, highlights the importance of the “It’s Not OK!” and other campaigns against harm in families. Violence at home was described by retired Governor-General the Hon Dame Silvia Cartwright as New Zealand’s dark secrets, and treating the behavior that created this incident in a perfunctory manner suggests that as a society we still have far to go.
We knew the name of the complainant from day one, but not that of the players or the lawyer who has decided to clear the players, and very little about the process that was followed behind closed doors. In what seems a haze of denial, no-one is to be held to account for this incident which, by implication, leaves doubts about what is or is not OK for New Zealand Rugby. Given the weight of public opinion, the complainant has sought to step back, and ironically the only genuine apology about this incident came from someone whose work involves the wreckage left by violent and abusive behavior towards women and their children.
The top rugby players of today have well earned a huge amount of public respect and admiration, which is no doubt reflected in the enthusiasm of so many primary school children to be guards of honour at big games. It is why we have so many women players these days, and why there are so many times when the diplomatic skills of our top players exceed those of our politicians and even our diplomats. Those in retirement homes and hospitals get a real buzz when super rugby players visit. New Zealanders are defined by our rugby players – their standards have become our standards. These standards include a code of conduct that all players are required to sign up to from the earliest age that they begin to play rugby.
With such public respect and admiration comes an accountability, and as Families Commissioner I would have expected that to bring about a proper explanation and dissociation when behaviour deviates from such standards. We remain unclear how the code of conduct set for our rugby players applied to this and other recent incidents. Leadership in our national sport is required not only on the field, and it is needed now so that all of us have a clear sense of where New Zealand Rugby draws the line.
Way back in 1972 the New Zealand Rugby Union took a stand against player violence when it sent home from Wales the All Black Keith Murdoch, after a fracas in which he reportedly punched a hotel security guard. Four decades later, perhaps it is time for rugby to make very clear its principles about behaviour towards women. Ironically, what both incidents have in common is a residual deep unease about whether it is justice or expediency that has been served up. New Zealand Rugby has missed a very public opportunity to reinforce its commitment to the high standards we have taken for granted, and its special place in New Zealand leaves no room for any repeat appearance of double standards. Yet they seem to happen.
The level of harm and abuse of women reported in New Zealand justifies the deep concern that many have about what influences such harm within families today, including of children. In November the annual white ribbon campaign takes place. Perhaps a small sign of commitment will be to see a white ribbon alongside the sponsors logos at NZRU headquarters for the duration of the campaign.
New Zealand Rugby is one of our country’s biggest membership organisations – its members have a lot to contribute to breaking the cycle of domestic violence in our country but it needs the relationships they have with their whānau, families, communities and country to be genuinely founded on respect.
The young men who play rugby come out of the same homes and backgrounds as recruits to another organisation that contains many young men, but which has owned at the highest level a need and responsibility to make its standards about respect for women clear – the New Zealand Defence Force. Some six months ago the New Zealand Defence Force launched Operation RESPECT, the culmination of two years of work to tackle inappropriate and harmful sexual behaviours.
How do we take more collective responsibility for the behaviour of young men and their respect for women?