Amidst the numerous scandals, horror stories and genuinely quite depressing tales associated with university rugby and the ‘lad culture’ that it allegedly propagates, I thought I would take some time to expound on my experiences. This is not meant to be read as a vindication of omnibigots, such as the LSE rugby team that branded women as “slags” and prohibited homosexuality. Rather, this is meant to be a reminder not to tar everyone with the same brush.
Assimilating into the university lifestyle always promised to be a bit of a social challenge for me. This is because, from what I could glean from indignant Guardian articles, my mother, and anonymous commenters on The Student Room; Russell Group universities oozed middle class culture. This was challenging inasmuch as I came from a decidedly working class educational background, and I was faced with a number of anxieties about how well I would fit in. It took me almost two terms to step outside of my comfort zone and do something that wasn’t fit and proper a lowly peon such as myself, and join a rugby team, which is something that my school never had.
That’s a lie – we cobbled together a ragtag bunch of year 10s for a tournament once and immediately played a well-rehearsed public school team, who were bemused at the fact that our scrumhalf’s poor mum had kitted him out with a bicycle helmet before the match. That is however, beside the point.
I came to university with a prejudice set in cement about rugby: that it was an upper-middle class sport. University rugby teams ostensibly competed not just in try-scoring, but misogyny, wanton destruction and hoary rowdiness, which seemed a little unsavoury to me. Indeed my initial aversion to the game was carried on a tide of rumours and whispers about horrific initiations and reckless violence.
Like most stereotypes, my hitherto held preconceptions were pretty wide of the mark, at least in the case of college rugby. My vindication of rugby teams and the bourgeois lad culture around which they revolve has to be prefaced with an appreciation that my experience may not be representative. If anything, this is a reaction to the completely disgusting and entirely lamentable behaviour that sports clubs can be notorious for at university; I am not denying its existence but rather acknowledging it as a reprehensible black mark on the report-card of sport, and something that I know many sportspeople do not want associated with them.
Sidling up to training with Alcuin Rugby Club, I was unsure of what to expect. The chip on my shoulder expected an ersatz Bullingdon Club, with hordes of ‘rugby lads’ frothing at the mouth with testosterone and rabid masculinity. In actuality, everyone that I met just seemed pretty normal, which annihilated the caricatured that I had built up. It can be tempting to lap up the one-dimensional student archetypes, but I took the scenic route to discover how misleading they can be, and how far they can hold you back from enjoying your time at university. Without trying to secrete too many platitudes, my teammates are genuinely pleasant guys that have pursuits beyond instinctively regressing into neanderthalic louts in the presence of women or alcohol.
There was no degrading initiation; no intimidation of anyone; no sexist or racist slurs being chanted like the Hakka. Yeah, rugby in the UK tends to be a white, male, middle class pursuit and this is reflected at York. However, critically, these demographics are not mutually exclusive with a social conscience, an independent mind or respect for other people. Indeed, being a rugby player is not synonymous with lecherous misogyny.
In retrospect, perhaps it does smack a little bit of reverse snobbery, but social class was something that mattered to me during my application process. I gravitated towards universities that emphasised social inclusivity and was repelled by places that had a reputation for the opposite, and I certainly considered rugby to epitomise the culture that I avoided. Moreover, perhaps I am bleating about my own unique preconceptions and my lad-apologist spiel is a sermon to the choir, but if there was one thing that I wish I had copped onto a little sooner, it’s that you shouldn’t restrict yourself because of preconceptions. For me, this was about wrongly panning rugby teams off as oafish twits, hell-bent on public demonstrations of sheer dim-wittedness, but as a rule of thumb it can be applied to anyone that has access to the wealth of opportunities available at York.