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A public spectacle

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.33, 28 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

There used to be a joke that went like this – “I went to watch a fight but unfortunately a game of rugby broke out!”

I don’t wish to add to the load of comment on that shoddy incident in a certain schoolboy rugby match on a recent Saturday. It was one of many shoddy incidents in sport and that includes school sport. Schools would have been best to sort this one out as indeed happens many times each rugby season in many schools.

“Boy, you can’t do that – I care about winning but I care more about how you win. I don’t like to lose but I care about how you lose.” This would be the line adopted by sensible Everyman-Principals,

But this captured the imagination of the public with a ferocity that was spectacular.

I believe that this was because the nation was thirsting for drama and guidance at a time when the national psyche was being both tested and confused by the smacking referendum. The moral certainty that it was wrong to hit children was being turned around when despite the scriptures those of the religious right would claim to understand and to love. People who would ordinarily be sensible would adopt the position of stating the “I wouldn’t hit a child bit I defend your right to do so to the death” (usually of the child.

In days of old, thinking folk would drift toward the village square to see a band of players present a morality play on the back of a wagon. A morality play was in medieval times called an interlude and what better description is there of going along to sport?

Typically these plays had a moral theme and they were an allegory which illustrated some aspect of life and its tribulations. The protagonist would be a good person who was facing the challenge of life’s confusions. The characters would include those who represented and personified various moral attributes. They would try to persuade him to follow a godly life rather than choose the path of evil.

So on a Saturday afternoon a Protagonist-Crowd assembled to join the the players, to set about their allegorical spectacle.  The two Personification-Teams paraded the temptations of reputation and riches up against the realities of struggle. The crowd troubled by deep questions about violence towards children saw the forces of privilege and power prevail but then the truth of life was still to be graphically played out.

When rules are no longer strong enough, when the gods are the side of the powerful the only recourse is violence. Spirit and values give way to force, order and respect are to be fought over, brutally and braggedly. In life as in sport,  the reality and truth of the scoreboard is not to be denied and as the last final blow of the Grim Referee approaches, desperation set in.

What followed this worrying first part of the play was an even more worrying commentary delivered ex cathedra by the priests of the Church of Sport. Feigned disgust by Sports Talkback Hosts cunningly masked the message of the scriptures that had taught for so long. Win at all cost – if only those namby pamby school teachers had not instilled the will to play fair and to play hard, New Zealand would still be a force in world rugby. Worse, the ultimate sin was to indulge in sport for pleasure!

The tales of St Loe, St Shelford, St Mead and a plethora of lesser saints were the parables of the Coaches had held the community together and belief in our might was unchallengeable.

As the play continued, in rode the Discipline Demons on the white horses of the powerful to pass down the law. Two people fight – the vanquished must be punished for they have no battles left to fight – the victors must be allowed to fight in other and not-far-away battles.

Protagonist-Crowd was perplexed. While there once seemed better ways of resolving tensions and even sensible ways of punishing those who had strayed, the world now seemed to be dispossessed of logic.  These young warriors needed guidance and the loving hand of guidance. The Protagonist-Crowd faced other issues and they were confused.

Sitting in their thousands of huts, huddled in front of fires they grappled with the issues of violence, of power, of the need to bring young people on rather than slap them down – to extend the hand of a loving deity when most they were troubled.

Was the spectacle of the fight at the end of the game an illustration of this love? Did the kindness of good rugby playing require this show of force? Should such loving behavior between the members of the fraternity of the young illustrate the extent to which Protagonist-Crowd was being asked to consider the use of violence against children.

Wait, they thought, we are told that it isn’t violence when it is part of good parenting even thought the law forbids it. But at what point does “loving” cease to be loving and “smack” starts to be “hit”? Probably at about the same point at which “playing to win with glory” becomes “playing to win at all costs”.

Does good rugby playing require an element of violence? Some who phone sports talk-back lament the loss of “mongrel”. Well mongrel is simply confused breeding and that gets s back to the heart of the issue.

Protagonist-Crowd having witnessed the Morality Play decided in its wisdom that the road to godliness was not cleanliness but good dirty stuff. In both the rugby game and the referendum the issue was never the young ones, it was always the grown-ups.

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