Let not tabloid media cast the first stone at the All Blacks

by Paul Thomas / 20 September, 2017
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All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith: on duty and in a public setting. Photo/Getty Images

We should be wary of taking our lead on questions of sex and morality from the tabloid press.

The report of the Respect and Responsibility Review Panel, delivered to New Zealand Rugby (NZR) last week, is timely. It’s concerning rather than alarming, and useful in that it provides both a wake-up call and a road map for the culture change the game must make if it’s to move with the times and positively reflect the community from which it draws and which it represents.

That said, the reaction to the report of the community in question wasn’t entirely reassuring; it suggested there will be both resistance to the culture change and unforeseen consequences arising from it.

On the airwaves and message boards, the report was predictably dismissed as “PC rubbish” by those whose response to rugby players behaving badly is, and always will be, “boys will be boys”. It’s safe to assume this tendency is well represented in grass-roots rugby. At the other extreme are those who regard 36 cases of misconduct over four years, ranging from failure to attend meetings to inappropriate sexual behaviour, as evidence of an irredeemably toxic culture. They seem to want to set young men up to fail by demanding that they be paragons of virtue.

Take this from a New Zealand Herald editorial on the report, referencing Australian tabloid revelations about All Blacks Aaron Smith and Jerome Kaino: “Tawdry as these matters may be, it is necessary they be exposed for the public lessons they provide. The All Blacks management seems to defend its players by saying they are personal issues, not rugby issues, but they appear out of touch. The report it has now received … provides them with a much more accurate reflection of today’s moral standards.”

Jerome Kaino, left, and Steve Tew: a moral rather than contractual issue. Photo/Getty Images

In fact, “these matters” are quite different, and are being treated accordingly. Smith’s airport toilet liaison occurred when he was on All Blacks duty and in a public setting; Kaino supposedly had an affair without informing the other woman he was married, although it would have taken her three clicks of the mouse to find that out for herself.

NZR chief executive Steve Tew was surely right to say Kaino’s is a private matter and a moral, rather than contractual, issue. The Herald seems to be suggesting that All Blacks are obliged to be monogamous and the media are obliged to expose them if they stray from the path of righteousness.

Some in the media revel in being simultaneously prurient and puritanical, and we understand the commercial calculations that drive that approach. Armed with that knowledge, we should be exceedingly wary of taking our lead on questions of private morality from the tabloid press. And if we’re going to demand such high standards of personal conduct from young athletes, shouldn’t we do likewise with other figures of influence, such as parliamentarians and newspaper editors?

Finally, when it comes to private sexual behaviour, there are several obvious grounds for thinking that today’s moral standards allow much more room for manoeuvre than yesteryear’s. The general public is reasonably realistic and broad-minded in these matters, on the basis of letting him who is without sin cast the first stone.

A cautionary tale worth bearing in mind is that of the UK Tory government’s 1993 “Back to Basics” campaign, which, whatever its vague intentions, was perceived as an attempt to stem the tide of permissiveness. No sooner was it announced than the Tories found themselves beset by scandals across the full spectrum of sexual unorthodoxy. Among those mauled in the tabloid feeding frenzy was a junior government whip who’d gone on holiday with his – at the time – underage boyfriend. As an MP’s wife accurately remarked: “That’s Back to Basics gone to buggery.”

This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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