Masculinity and violence: the men who play rugby league

The belief that rugby league is a ‘hard sport’ played by ‘hard men’ made by insiders does little to advance the image of the game. AAP/Action Photographics

When his grandson was tragically killed while playing rugby league in April this year, former New South Wales and Australian halfback Tommy Raudonikis said:

Everyone needs to understand that this was just an accident. Rugby league is a hard game played by hard men.

Raudonikis seemed to be saying that this was an unfortunate and unpredictable occurrence, almost sure to happen to someone at some time given the nature of the game of rugby league.

He should know about hard men. In his playing days he was one.

Rugby league has a history of players carrying on even when they are seriously injured. South Sydney captain John Sattler once played an entire grand final with a broken jaw. In one game South Sydney and Manly player Les Davidson played with a detached retina.

So it would seem there is some literal truth to what Raudonikis said. But perhaps also his grandson’s death allows some space to reflect upon rugby league and the “hard game, hard men” trope, and to ask what it means.

Some men, and at times great numbers of men, engage in violent behaviour. So ubiquitous is male violence that John Archer in his book Male Violence argues that it should be considered a “normal” characteristic of masculinity. It’s certainly a normal part of rugby league.

I’ve watched rugby league for over forty years. I’ve seen great players and exciting tries. I’ve also watched the player with the ball be hit by up to five opposing players at once, grappled to the ground, their faces pushed into the turf, perhaps an elbow to the back of the head for good measure. And this is the legal stuff.

This has been interwoven with “coat hanger” tackles (where an out stretched arm snaps a player’s head back with great force), spear tackles, late tackles on defenceless players and countless punch-ups. Yes, all this is illegal and the referees do their best to stamp it out. But it still happens every week. It would seem that many Australian men, both players and fans, take this violence to be an inevitable part of rugby league.

The “hard game, hard men” trope allows players, coaches, commentators and fans to ignore the ugly side of rugby league. Invoke it and that’s all one has to say. Your interlocutor will nod wisely, and further discussion of the incident your remark refers to is rendered superfluous. In this way the inherent violence of rugby league is silently sanctioned.

Throughout history a succession of male stereotypes – the bushman, the digger, the surf lifesaver – have celebrated Australia as a (white) man’s country. These stereotypes stand for the characteristics by which Australians define themselves: resourceful, anti-authoritarian, brave, physically strong and sticking by our mates.

To most Australians these are virtues. But they are accompanied by a number of other attributes that might not be so positive: stoical, resistant to emotion, and inarticulate about feelings.

Raudonikis’ invocation of the “hard game, hard men” trope is an example of this stoicism and resistance to emotion. It’s probably how he copes with the sense of loss and grief he must feel. We all seek comfort in such “truths” when overwhelming events defy rational explanation.

So on the one hand “hard game, hard men” is a “truth” that justifies violence, that perhaps makes physical pain of rugby league easier to bear. It’s also a “truth” that makes psychical pain easier to bear.

The brutal nature of rugby league often takes an emotional as well as physical toll on its participants. AAP/Action Photographers

Stoicism and lack of emotion in Australian men inures them to violence. It both justifies the behaviour of violent men and allows non-violent men to tacitly accept the violence of others.

It’s a type of voyeurism, watching rugby league players bash each other. Perhaps there is a degree of wish fulfilment to the idea: “I wish I was big enough and strong enough to do that, and be allowed to get away with it”.

Contact sports like rugby league need to be recognised for what they are: ritualised and repetitive displays of hyper-masculinity, staged by men for men. The players are actually doing it, but when we groan with each gang tackle, when we yell at each dash down the sideline, male spectators are vicariously reassuring themselves that they too, are men.

Other football codes are the same. Rugby union has long been described as a thug’s game played by gentlemen. The way AFL players “chest” each other in the minute prior to the bounce reminds one of rams head-butting each other for supremacy in the paddock. Why is it so?

Manliness is an unstable status: it needs frequent reinforcement. From when they are boys, men are encouraged to constantly prove themselves to each other. This burden of proof is naturalised and internalised to the point that it ceases to be a requirement imposed by others, and becomes self-driven.

The “hard game, hard men” trope perpetuates the need for recognition that one is a man. Men need to rethink the philosophy behind the words, and stop being so hard on ourselves.