Mike Grimshaw Mike Grimshaw CREDIT: University of Canterbury

Rugby needs to be taken seriously as key to shaping NZ's society

Sunday 2 June 2013, 2:46PM
By University of Canterbury

Rugby is just as much a religion in New Zealand today as it was 30 years ago, a University of Canterbury (UC) sociology expert says.

Associate Professor Mike Grimshaw, who studies religion, believes rugby is a different type of religion than it was, but much of the change has been in the way New Zealand experiences rugby.

``It is a transnational experience via mass media and the way Super 15 rugby brings overseas teams to us.  Like all religion it has become part of an on-going series of lifestyle choices fitted in among other competing choices. But changes don’t diminish the religion for those who participate in it.

``The All Blacks’ success on the world stage is still central to national pride. But this is always tempered by the ongoing scabs of playing against South Africa in the apartheid era, culminating in the 1981 Springbok tour.

``When the national pride becomes a form of almost totalitarian demand then the nationalism of rugby needs to be critiqued as any fundamentalism does.

``Sky television is changing rugby. The professional game here would not exist without Sky. What we are seeing is what happens more broadly with all such religions. The supermarket of faiths means one increasingly picks and chooses one’s involvement, as a spectator or fan alongside a number of other choices.

``It is increasingly similar to what sociologists of religion have termed believing but not belonging. In this case, we may still be believers in rugby but also believers in a number of other activities that give meaning and sustain us. Just because we don’t turn up to or tune into every game doesn’t mean we no longer believe.’’

Professor Grimshaw has recently had a paper on rugby, The Oval Opiate, published in the International Journal of Religion and Sport.

He says academics generally don’t rate or recognise rugby, especially those in the humanities and social sciences.

Sport is either seen as not worthy of serious thought and consideration as it is seen as frivolous,  or it becomes viewed as expressing all that is problematic with modern society, Professor Grimshaw says.

Many academics consider people involved in or who play rugby as less-intellectual types. There is a long line of left-wing academics celebrating soccer.

``But rugby in New Zealand is almost totally overlooked or analysed as a problem first and foremost.  Unfortunately, many who do the arts don’t or didn’t play rugby and so start from a position of opposition or indifference. The attitude toward rugby people, as rugby-heads, still continues.

``We need to start taking sport and rugby seriously in New Zealand as a means of engaging with and understanding our society.

``We need more and better studies of sport in this country. Studies that take sports, and those who play and support sports, seriously. The joy and meaning of rugby is a book that needs to be written,’’ Professor Grimshaw says.