My Experience Playing Rugby at UCL

My Experience Playing Rugby at UCL

After their recent disaffiliation from the Student Union, Haris Amin reflects on his time with the UCL Men’s Rugby club.

A lot of UCL students have strong opinions about the recent disaffiliation of UCL Men’s Rugby from Students’ Union UCL.  It is undeniable that certain students have been unfairly treated by members of the rugby club. Ultimately, though, it is very difficult for somebody to accurately dissect the culture of a club that they have never been a part of.

I am a brown man who does not drink alcohol, and I played for, and later decided to quit, UCL Men’s Rugby during my first year of university. Therefore, I believe I am in a unique position to discuss my experience of university rugby and how it failed me, but ultimately how the sport would have so much to offer students if the rugby club was run correctly.

UCL Men’s Rugby were disaffiliated by the Students’ Union in December 2018 after team members attempted to hold a banned initiation ceremony. The ban came after an earlier suspended disaffiliation associated with events in June 2018 where several rugby players were disciplined and banned from the university’s bars for chanting sexist songs on a bus. This is not an apology for that behaviour: I agree with the decision to disaffiliate the club, and any pending allegations against individual society members must be respected and thoroughly investigated.

The ban received national coverage in The Telegraph, and was extensively debated on the Facebook page UCLove. The outpouring of hatred towards the rugby team in UCL was clear. UCLove posts described club members as ‘white men [who] go around battering and assaulting other students while spewing racist rubbish’ and ‘stereotypical rugby knobs’ among other things. The problems with the sport of rugby, however, extend beyond the walls of UCL. Imperial College London’s Men’s Rugby Club were also banned after members of the club posed naked in front of a statue of Winston Churchill and joked about defecating in the Trafalgar Square fountains. And the issue extends beyond rugby itself and touches on questions of masculinity, lad culture and drinking culture in the UK. The Tab quoted a member of UCL Men’s rugby as saying “it’s the attitude of others toward rugby that has changed over the past three years more than the club itself”. Rugby at UCL will come back, but what remains to be determined is the conditions it needs to fulfil to make its return. There needs to be a meaningful debate about what should be acceptable and what should be discarded from UCL Men’s Rugby Club. So, as someone who has experienced it, I would like to share the good and bad aspects of university rugby.

When I was suffering an injury-enforced absence from the rugby team during my first year of university, I received a call one evening from the 3rd team captain. First year is a confusing time for anyone, as people struggle to integrate, make friends and find a purpose in a new environment. One thing I was consistently and immensely grateful for was finding, through rugby, a community of individuals with whom I could form meaningful friendships and navigate experiences at university. The captain encouraged me to join them on a social that evening and reminded me that the club was about so much more than just rugby. He told me that even if I never played again, I was always welcome at socials and could give him a call if I ever had a problem. And he genuinely meant it.

Rugby can form bonds between people that are indescribable to those who have not experienced it. Genuine camaraderie, forged through mud, blood and sweat, helps you get to know someone in a way our normal social interactions never can. There is a reason people refer to rugby lads as a collective. Often people find lifelong friends through playing university rugby. I do not drink, and at no stage did I ever feel the slightest amount of pressure to consume alcohol; it was possible to attend socials and fully participate. I was also part of a Movember fundraising effort that raised over £10,000 for mental health causes, and it is worth remembering UCL Men’s Rugby has raised almost £25,000 for the foundation in the past 3 years, one of the highest tallies of any group in the UK. At its best, rugby is an outlet for aggression and a place to make friends and a difference in wider society.

Ultimately, the rugby club were disaffiliated for attempting to hold a banned initiation ceremony, but it must be remembered that UCL Men’s Rugby are not the only society to hold initiations. I can recount a dozen stories of friends involved in other UCL sports societies who have attended a ‘welcome drinks’ and woken up without any recollection of the previous night and with vomit in their beds. The problematic nature of British drinking culture is not limited to university sports clubs, and is demonstrated by behaviour on nights out and the discourse surrounding alcohol. The Telegraph article about UCL Rugby’s ban ended with a reference to Newcastle student Ed Farmer, who died during an initiation in 2016. If anyone reading this is part of a committee for a society, or thinking of applying for a role in the future, I would encourage you to research this story further, and genuinely think about how you and your society address alcohol consumption.

I have been disappointed and disgusted, for example, with the way that UCL Men’s Rugby have treated coaches that transport them to and from fixtures, but I have had exactly the same feelings when I have heard how other sports societies have treated the public transport they have used, with stories of broken glass and unattended vomit all too common. I believe that much of this problem is the attitude people have towards first year students who join societies.  I was particularly confused by one individual who only ever referred to me as ‘fresher’ during my time in UCL Rugby, then drove past me six months after I had last spoken to him, rolled down the window and referred to me in a friendly manner by my real name. It is a dehumanising experience, and being treated badly becomes institutionalised, as club members are all too willing to perpetuate the vicious cycle when they progress within the society’s hierarchy. If UCL Men’s Rugby is reintroduced, the new committee need to consider the way that relationships between the year groups are conducted.

I ultimately quit UCL Men’s rugby because I did not entirely feel comfortable about the way many actions of the club were conducted. One of the most commonly cited concerns is the attitude held by certain individuals towards women and, as mentioned already, all allegations of misogyny and sexual assault must be reported and dealt with thoroughly and sensitively. Moving forward, it should be mandatory for all sports teams to attend UCL’s Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment bystander sessions. This is not a suggestion that a member of a sports team is more likely to be involved in sexual harassment than another UCL student, but an acknowledgement of the reality that sexual harassment is unfortunately far too common in universities. These bystander sessions help people understand how to react to alarming and unfamiliar situations, and are immensely useful beyond even a university context.

Societal problems of toxic masculinity, sexism and excessive alcohol consumption contributed to an unacceptable culture in the UCL Men’s Rugby Club. University rugby clubs will have to work incredibly hard to rectify the problems that they have created and the image that they have unfortunately cultivated. If this happens, I hope that Men’s Rugby can reconcile with the rest of the university, so that rugby’s social benefits can be a force for good for club members and the wider UCL community.

Image via Flickr