Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists tackle the issues affecting students today. The disaffiliation of UCL Men’s Rugby from Students’ Union UCL brings up wider questions surrounding the culture of sports teams at universities, and whether such a culture should still be tolerated.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock during the past few weeks you will no doubt be aware that the UCL Men’s Rugby Team have recently been disaffiliated from Students’ Union UCL, after attempting to hold a banned initiation involving the signing of non-disclosure agreements by freshers. The SU received a subsequent complaint and, although the exact nature of this complaint is still unknown, it was enough for the club to be banned from training on university pitches and competing in BUCS leagues – as well as having their funding withdrawn – for the next year.
This isn’t the first time they’ve been in trouble. Back in June last year they were disciplined following allegations of harassment at the end of 2017, including ‘treating a woman to a threesome’, and were previously disaffiliated in 2012 for leaving pornography in Phineas, although this decision was successfully appealed. They are, of course, planning to appeal the ban again – and who can blame them? After all, as an alumnus of the team said on UCLove, “It’s the attitude of others toward rugby that has changed over the past three years more than the club itself.”
It is the interpretation of this statement that raises questions about how this ‘lad culture’ epidemic at university came to perpetuate within particular groups – unfortunately these groups are often sports teams. I say unfortunately because sport should be about bringing people together in the spirit of camaraderie and friendship, leaving aside personal or political difference in favour of accomplishing a shared goal. Yet currently some of them (I must stress this is not true of every sports team) seem to have become breeding grounds for the kind of discriminatory and exclusionary conduct that universities have attempted to eliminate from their culture in recent history. But is it that their behaviour has gotten worse? Or have we indeed, as the alumnus quote suggests, become less tolerant of them?
Surely our refusal to accept numerous counts of casual racism and misogyny is a sign of progress in our handling of these kinds of problems, problems that would once have merely been put down to harmless lad humour? The curbing of the dangers of toxic masculinity has certainly improved over the past few years, as sports teams have begun to embrace charitable ventures such as Movember, so perhaps it is right to say it is us rather than them that has changed. Yet, how is it that certain types of club embody this level of ‘lad culture’ so much more than others?
One factor is that many sports players are used to being at the top of their game both on and off the field and their competitive achievements encourage respect and admiration amongst their peers. Could it be that they believe this respect will protect them from being shunned or punished? The pressure to fit in must also take its toll, especially with regards to socials and initiations. This dictates that they must go drink for drink with their teammates in order to be accepted, and naturally with higher alcohol consumption comes fewer inhibitions or concerns over the consequences of their actions. However, by blaming external factors we are ignoring the fact that these individuals are making a choice. They are choosing to follow the crowd, even if their conscience might be less clear as a result, and have chosen to rebel against a union that they know can and have previously held them to account, albeit briefly.
As a member of a sports team at my previous university, I know how easy it can be to be seduced by the feeling of belonging that comes with this membership. These are the people that go through the same highs and lows as you, doing a sport that you all love. They often form the majority of your friendship groups and are a big part of your social life. Therefore, it makes sense that you want to defend their behaviour, even at the times it seems questionable.
Why this bad behaviour extends to racism and misogyny in certain clubs is something I struggle to explain. I definitely don’t think we can simply put it down to the old ‘boys will be boys’ mantra – and evidently UCL agrees with this. Discrimination often occurs when ignorance mixes with fear, although it’s hard to tell whether individuals in these teams actually feel this way or are merely trying to fit in with what they believe everyone else thinks.
It is clear that this behaviour cannot be tolerated in any shape or form, and in the case of the Men’s Rugby Team the SU are right to put a stop to anything they think could harm students. For it is not just the heavy drinking typical of these socials that is harmful, but the culture behind it that allows them to take place. If this lad culture is to become a thing of the past, the factors that encourage it need to be identified and rooted out. Perhaps demonstrating that these attitudes within such societies need to change, alongside the attitudes of the institutions that enable them to operate, is at least a step in the right direction.