Men’s Rugby Union banned from Varsity 2020: #NeverOKUnlessYouPlay?

Comment by Emily Johnstone and Genevieve Redgrave

The annual men’s Rugby Union match at the end of Varsity is largely considered to be the highlight of the day, routinely drawing the largest crowds and the most amount of hype. Yet if you have already taken a look, you might have noticed it missing from the fixtures for Varsity 2020. Bath Time can reveal that the team hasn’t been entered into the annual clash against Cardiff Met due to reports of serious misconduct and inappropriate behaviour.

Between October 2018-October 2019, the SU were made aware of a disproportionately large number of disciplinaries from Rugby club members. Whilst these were dealt with within SU or University procedures, it’s suggestive of an underlying problem of ‘lad culture’ within groups inside the club.

In the pre-season of this academic year, we had a specific complaint about the behaviour of unidentified individuals within the BUCS men’s rugby union teams at an event. This included multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and violence. The SU senior management, Officers and SU sport therefore decided a men’s Rugby Union team would not be entered into Varsity this year.”

Tom Sawko, SU Sports Officer

This isn’t the first time that men’s Rugby Union has been embroiled in scandals at the University. The Times previously revealed that rugby initiations involved University of Bath students being blindfolded and urinated on; an allegation the men’s team has denied. Since 2014, there have been numerous reports of Union members singing discriminatory and sexist chants on buses and during matches. Several complaints of sexual violence perpetrated by Rugby club members have also surfaced and gone under investigation.

As reports of inappropriate behaviour accumulate year after year, it seems little has been done to address these issues effectively. This Varsity ban does come after mandatory sexual consent training for all UBRFC members, from BUCS players through to casual-play teams. But this merely highlights the endemic nature of the problem and whilst these do appear to be a step in the right direction, a couple of sessions (the quality of these has been debated) and a one-game ban ensure that questions remain about how seriously the SU is taking this issue.

It seems other Student Unions’ across the UK have taken stronger action against similar incidents of inappropriate behaviour with the men’s rugby teams at the University of South Wales and UCL suspended from competing in BUCS. Similarly, following historic reports of misogyny, racism and homophobia, LSE completely disbanded their men’s rugby team.

In an attempt to tackle these rising reports of harmful and inappropriate activities, BUCS has recently launched an online tool for members to report “problem initiations”. On their website, BUCS notes that they are “taking a role to lead, report and support institutions dealing with problem initiations to ensure appropriate action is taken.”

In light of these findings, the SU’s decision to issue a Varsity ban appears overly lenient. As Rugby club members are still allowed to attend the event as spectators, we are left with only one question – what actually is the point? Not much has changed for the rugby calendar either, with the SU and University actively promoting BUCS Super Rugby matches every week. Given the SU’s policy of zero-tolerance, it seems odd that men’s Rugby Union resumed play as usual following yet another year of serious allegations. Is the SU simply turning a blind eye because athletic pursuits are part of the sell?

Concessions such as these fall far short from the SU’s promises of zero-tolerance and leaves the impression that it’s #NeverOKUnlessYouPlay.

When asked about the Varsity ban, Chairman of UBRFC, Matt Bendin, responded:

Firstly I would like to apologise fully on behalf of the Rugby Club for any distress caused by the behaviour of club members and fully understand that the sanctions come as a result of a number of un-related historic incidents between the autumns of 2018 and 2019.

The behaviour of some individuals during that time was not exemplary and we understand that we, as a club, have to take collective responsibility and we fully accept the sanctions imposed on us this season by the SU. We continue to make steps to stamp out this kind of behaviour and we have been encouraged that the SU have recognised that effort. We actively oppose and challenge any such behaviour.

The club are gutted and frustrated for the guys who won’t be able to play at Varsity as they are bearing the burden for the behaviour of the few. Normally playing at Varsity is a culmination of years of hard work, it’s a celebration for final year students and the chance to play one last match with some of their best mates. As I said, I am particularly empathetic towards those innocent of incidents but as a collective we undertake responsibility for others’ actions. We will of course, though, turn out to support the women’s rugby and rugby league sides playing in the Varsity as well as the other sports teams taking part.

On a more personal note, I have seen a huge shift in culture during my whole time at university, especially so this year, however while change has happened, we’re not perfect. We have worked with the SU to amend things, we want others to see us the way we promote our culture internally. We have taken part in the Never OK sessions and then the Goodlad initiatives set up with the SU. The club has become far more inclusive, I know how accommodating we have been at socials for freshers and any year group for that matter, to ensure we look after our own and aim to conduct ourselves in a way to be proud of at all times. I think this has all been a catalyst for change, of which has been positive and I hope the SU would support us in saying so and they have also been appreciative of our efforts in making changes. While we haven’t reached a complete resolution yet, we are working hard.  We want to to work with the SU to move forward with them and grow as a club that has positive influence to the wider community on campus and in the city. We appreciate the support we’ve had to identify and address the necessary changes and  endeavour to progress this.

When asked about what other steps the SU has taken to improve the sports culture, Tom Sawko shared,

There’s been a lot of work over past years on creating a culture shift, focusing on both, reactive and preventative measures. This year, myself, Matt (SU Sport CDO) and Alisha have been working on this. We’ve ensured more accessible report and support tools for those who are feeling harassed or peer pressured within socials, with the option to do so anonymously. This week, BUCS introduced a similar tool and guidance on problem initiations. Our first committee night of the year was focused on culture within sports clubs and looking to make sport at Bath less intimidating. We looked through a club, committee member and SU Sport lens in order to see where we could affect change within each area. We’ve rolled out #NeverOK Bystander training, and collaborated with the Good Lad Initiative to run workshops designed to transform cultures of selected teams (including rugby union). We’ve found the Good Lad Initiative have run some incredibly engaging, moving workshops, that were well received by all who took part. We are lobbying the University for more money towards a wider-reaching movement towards creating this culture shift”.

Despite the implementation of these measures, a “culture shift” remains to be seen. Inappropriate conduct amongst members of men’s Rugby Union continues to be reported, so are these measures truly preventative? Rugby entered the professional era 25 years ago, priding itself in good sportsmanship and discipline. The minimal bans and training concessions given to SU Rugby club members appear amateurish by comparison. Surely it’s time for the SU to step up and show the red card to unacceptable behaviour.

If you have been affected by problem initiations you can use the links below to report them:



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