This is our truth, tell us yours
The problems of the LSE rugby club have prompted plenty of commentary.
Rugby clubs have a traditional image that plays to the same idea, of rugby clubs being heavily gendered, misogynistic places.
For young women at university in the UK, the rugby club is the ultimate fraternity, the place where there’s always at least one bloke who aspires to be John Belushi in Animal House.
The fact that the LSE rugby club has more in common with the Bullingdon Club than most rugby clubs will escape many readers.
So will the complex story of rugby clubs and singing.
You’ll hear some awful, bawdy songs from rugby clubs. In the 80s, in Yorkshire, there was a stomach turning song about Peter Sutcliffe that had no redeeming features. In the 90s, in the same Yorkshire club, I heard a version of These Foolish Things that was also nauseating.
On the other hand I have been in other rugby clubs where the singing repertoire was entirely work songs and old marching songs. Orwell wrote about the bawdy songs the British army sang, and I wish I had a pound for every rugby club where I’ve sat and heard an enthusiastic crowd bawling out the words of ‘I Don’t Want To Join The Army’. Work songs like ‘Sixteen Tons’, ‘Cottonfields’, or ‘King of the Road’ were a commonplace, and in one Durham rugby club I was overjoyed to sit with their front row as they defiantly belted out ‘Blackleg Miner’. In a Durham pit town a decade after the strike it was a hugely political gesture to some, but to others it was nothing more than an affirmation of their culture.
Blackleg Miner provides an intriguing link though to the reality, that the songs rugby clubs sing represent the cultural environment in which they exist. In that Durham rugby club they also made a decent fist of singing Three Drunken Maidens, a traditional bawdy drinking song that was, like Blackleg miner, a feature of the English folk revival of the 60s and 70s. English rugby clubs today might sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot with hand gestures that are crude and banal as accompaniment, but it’s also part of a tradition of slightly lachrymose, nostalgic songs being sung in rugby clubs long before Eric Clapton popularized the song in England. Sloop John B serves the same purpose as Swing Low, a song about going home.
Many of the songs, like the work songs I cited above, were part of popular culture as well as part of the drinking culture of rugby clubs. Others though, like old marching songs, were orally transmitted, and vigorously unpatriotic in the way that Orwell identified the culture of the British Army as being.
The point of course is that sports clubs reflect the culture they exist in. If LSE has a rugby club that resembles the Bullingdon Club the leadership of the LSE needs to ask itself what that says about its student body. It’s not enough to simply disband the rugby club, or take away its student union funding. The attitudes that meant that students found the rugby club’s behaviour acceptable, or that they couldn’t object to it if they wanted to play student rugby, will persist.
It’s important not to overstress the significance of any event. The behaviour of the LSE rugby club is not, emphatically not a metaphor for anything larger. The existence of a bullying clique in one university sports club is a problem for that university, not evidence of anything wider, an effect, if you like, not a cause.