Thoughts on (private) schoolboy rugby

“You see! I sent you to the right school after all!”

No doubt hundreds of parents say this each year, but this comment, heard this weekend, came after a narrow win by a first hockey side. The child to whom the remark was addressed, one assumes, initially wanted to attend our losing school, but the mother wanted otherwise, and used a sporting defeat as justification. Nothing wrong there – none of us are as God, after all.

But after 15 years of watching schoolboy rugby at this particular private establishment, and nearly as many witnessing the throwing of coins by their pupils at the feet of our family of school boys, perhaps the time is right for a word about it all.

Once, a parent threw cash notes on the ground, next to an injured child in our losing side, and suggested our school buy a new coach. I was so conflicted at the time between punching this hideous pretense for a father on the nose, and grabbing the cash and running, that the moment of retribution was lost.

I suppose the overwhelming message being imparted to the Godly boys is that money buys everything, including players and coaches. The most important point is that One Wins, everything from schoolboy sports matches to getting away with murder.

Consequences not so obvious, however, include the fact that many private schools at the moment are battling to field three teams per age group. So, of 120 pupils in a grade, 80 will choose to play hockey over rugby. And what about the pressure of encouraging all these boys to conform to the standards of capitalism, the prevailing economic order of the elite? If you question the school or the parents about this, you question the fundamental values around which they have built their lives and on which their schooling system depends. Not comfortable.

Where large numbers of schoolboys are currently choosing not to play rugby, this isn’t surprising. I remember having an argument with a headmaster once about rugby being compulsory, and his argument was that for boys, it was a controlled way of finding outlets for natural aggression, and he had a point. That, however, was some ten years ago, and times have changed. Now we have schools competing for players: kiddie professionals, getting paid for playing rugby at school.

And the increased competitiveness of schoolboy rugby has resulted in these kids becoming bigger and stronger – one longitudinal study from 1968 to 2011 pegged the average body mass of players at Craven Week as having increased by 10kg (6.6%). Of course, some of this weight increase can be attributed to resistance training, as all the “top rugby schools” have on-campus gyms. And one cannot argue that the heavier players have a competitive advantage, as numerous studies have shown that a disparity in body size may increase the risk of injury.

Much more concerning, however, is the number of age group rugby players who have tested positive for anabolic steroids and stimulants in the past two years. Studies have painted a lurid picture of widespread abuse and the connivance in some instances of coaches and team-mates as well. Many schools adhere to random drug tests, but the blood tests are extremely expensive, and the average schoolboy appears to know all the finer points of manipulating urine tests. (I guess it shouldn’t be forgotten that some steroid abuse among schoolboys is merely for them to look good – some 63% of schoolchildren admitting this in one survey).

Steroids, however, are extremely expensive, as are legal supplements, and most abuse is consequently found at quintile 5 schools (the wealthy schools, including former Model C institutions). If you have the money, you can (literally and figuratively) grow.

Small private schools and former Model C schools are different, in that many ordinary kids with working parents who battle financially make enormous sacrifices to send their kids to these schools, and the value systems are not necessarily the same. They can’t buy coaches and players to the same extent as they don’t have the capital resources to do so

But back to the Big Private Schools. One notable incident at a Johannesburg School fairly recently resulted in a new war cry by a BPS, which went thus: “It’s all right, it’s okay, we’ll have jobs for you one day”, on the occasion of them losing to a government school. I guess money even makes it okay to lose sometimes.

Here in KZN this weekend, it was loud rap and “f*ck my body” music from a small group of the opposition, wearing an astonishing array of strange hats and funky dark glasses, while their paler compatriots practiced their cricket fielding skills by hurling loose change around. Our wing nearly got concussion from the rain of coins on his head at one point. Even the parents couldn’t resist the odd dig: a brilliant saved try at one stage elicited the comment, “it must have been a recessive gene”. I guess money makes it okay to be racist as well.

If there ever was a bad advertisement for private school education, this would be it.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in April 2018.

 

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