SPIRO: The case of David Pocock and homophobia in rugby

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    Around the 67th minute of the intense, often nasty Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Brumbies, during a break in play, a stressed David Pocock told the referee Craig Joubert: “There’s some homophobic slurs being made.”

    “I didn’t hear anything but I totally agree with you, it’s unacceptable,” Joubert told Pocock.

    The referee asked the Waratahs captain Michael Hooper to have a word to his forwards: “I’m getting some pretty aggressive comments coming from your guys, that there are homophobic slurs (being made).”

    “We’re not into that,” Hooper told him.

    Pocock clearly did not regard this response as proper and adequate. He turned to Joubert and raised the matter again with him: “You heard that sir … you can’t say that, there could be gay players out there.”

    Then getting a confirmation on this point from Joubert, Pocock continued: “That’s fine, but after that their captain said ‘That’s rugby’. That’s not right.”

    A video clip of Pocock’s first appeal to Joubert shows Stephen Moore, the Brumbies captain and hooker, standing a little distance with a look of slight concern on his face and seemingly nodding his head in agreement.

    The slurs were said to have been made when the scrums packed. Presumably, Moore knew what was said and who said it.

    The point here is that, according to the LGBTI news site The Star Observer, Pocock did not actually hear the offensive word being said.

    Pocock is quoted by the news site as saying: “…there’s no room for homophobic language in our sport and we want to make it inclusive… Where you start is quelling out that sort of language. I didn’t hear it myself, I was just making the referee aware of it so he could act.”

    One of the problems with the quick and decisive action taken by the ARU is that none of the details of the two incidents when the homophobic word (said to be ‘faggot’) was spoken have been laid out.

    We know that Jacques Potgieter made the homophobic comments but we do not know who it was made to. We do not know any of the circumstances around the comments. And we do not know what Michael Hooper heard and why he responsed the way he did.

    The CEO of the Brumbies, Michael Jones, told reporters according to Wayne Smith in The Australian that “my understanding is that was one player he (Potgieter) was directing it at. I make no judgment or care, but he is not a homosexual. The comment was more the tone and the nature of what he was doing.”

    As the conservative political blogger Tim Blair has pointed out, Potgieter has been fined for making a gay slur to a player who is not gay.

    Jones elaborated on where Potgieter had gone wrong: “It was just the fact that he making generally derogatory comments and fairly aggressive comments on a whole range of things and one of them was the specific homophobic one.

    “There has been a long tradition in rugby that what happens on the field stays on the field. Some people have said he (Potgieter) went outside that. The fact was that he (Pocock) was on the field and raised it with the referee.”

    This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Pocock’s decision to alert Joubert to Potgieter’s homophobic comment and, as a consequence, make the incident a public matter.

    Wayne Smith’s take on this is interesting. On Tuesday in The Australian, in an article where he argued that Pocock may have cost himself the Wallabies captaincy, he wrote this:

    “Yet the fact that Brumbies backed out of lodging the formal complaint that coach Stephen Larkham foreshadowed at the post-match press conference suggests Pocock’s club felt the matter had gone far enough.

    “Certainly the prevailing opinion in Australian rugby circles yesterday was that Pocock should have handled the matter differently, perhaps by confronting the offender in the ‘Tahs dressing after the match.”

    If Pocock had done this and waited for the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, Smith pointed out, the incident would have been “quietly buried.” As it happened, “it is only because he acted so forthrightly… that we are even having this discussion today.”

    So this raises the question – should Pocock have been so forthright?

    On Monday 23 March at 7.00 pm, a media release from the ARU appeared in my hotmail basket: JACQUES POTGIETER ISSUED $20,000 FINE FOR HOMOPHOBIC COMMENTS

    The media release noted that $10,000 of the $20,000 fine was suspended. Potgieter had admitted to “making comments contrary to the ARU’s Inclusion Policy.” He was also required to undergo additional educational and awareness training.

    “Our Inclusion Policy,” the ARU CEO Bill Pulver noted, “reinforces Australian Rugby’s commitment to ensure every individual, whether they are players, supporters, coaches or administrators, feel safe, welcome and included regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

    ?I’d like to stress again that there is absolutely no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words on and off the field must reflect that.”

    Having made this strong statement about the how unacceptable homophobic comments are in rugby, the media release ended somewhat with a whimper:

    “The ARU, Waratahs, the rugby union Players’ Association (RUPA) and the player himself (Potgieter) have determined that the matter does not need to be heard by a Tribunal and accepted this penalty.”

    Some hours before the ARU statement was released, Jon Tuxworth at The Canberra Times published a story headed: Sydney Convicts gay player praises David Pocock.

    The gay player is Brennan Bastyovanszky. The Sydney Convicts is a gay rugby team.

    Bastyovanszky praised the work of the Waratahs franchise in devoting time and resources towards coaching the Sydney Convicts, and other gay rugby clubs:

    “Rugby in Australia, the Waratahs especially, have been wonderful in raising awareness around homophobia so it might simply be an isolated incident with a player who needs re-education.”

    On Tuesday, too, Rupert Guiness in the SMH wrote a comment article with the heading: Remorseful Potgieter hit with huge fine over gay slurs.

    The article confirmed that Potgieger had completed the ARU’s integrity training, “which includes the member protection policy around inclusion and racism.”

    Guiness also reported that Andrew Purchas, Australia’s gay rugby union and anti-homophobia sports campaigner, the president of the 2014 Bingham Cup international gay rugby tournament in Sydney (with David Pocock as an ambassador), had contacted Pocock on the Monday morning, before the ARU meeting, to offer support.

    “It is great that he is walking the talk,” Purchas said.

    Purchas also stated that he is confident homophobia is not rife in rugby: “Generally it is not a systemic issue. We’ve been happy with the support.”

    The gist of most of this commentary is that rugby has an excellent record in dealing with homophobic behaviour.

    Did David Pocock over-react, then?

    Israel Folau, out in the backs at fullback and well away from where the homophobic comments were made, told reporters that the Waratahs were not a homophobic team:

    “Certainly not. I don’t see that anywhere within our team and also in rugby in general.”

    But while Potgieter has apologised for his comments, I haven’t read any comment or apology from Michael Hooper for dismissing Pocock’s allegation of homophobic slurs as something that could not have happened.

    The case for supporting Pocock was made eloquently in the SMH by the newspaper’s Chief Sport Writer, Andrew Webster, a proud gay man, under the self-explanatory heading: David Pocock should be applauded, not criticised, for standing up against homophobia.

    I regard Webster as one of Australia’s most brilliant sports writers. The gist of his argument in defence of Pocock, was that it is easier to say nothing than to take a stand. Pocock has used his public profile on a number of issues, but he’s been mostly outspoken about homophobia, and a champion of same-sex marriage.

    Webster pointed out that earlier in March, “Wallabies and Brumbies star Matt Toomua was front and centre of the lead float at the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The float celebrated both Sydney’s hosting of the Bingham Cup, and the signing of the Anti-Homophobia and Inclusion Framework by Australia’s top five sporting codes.

    “The argument that ‘what stays on the field’ no longer applies, it hasn’t applied for years. It stopped the moment the sport became professional, with saturated television coverage bringing thousands of eyes and ears right into the middle of the field…

    “The word ‘faggot’ is a homophobic slur. It’s not being over-sensitive or politically correct to suggest as much. It mightn’t hurt you, but try being on the end of it.”

    This comment about the hurt inflicted by homophobic comments on gays is heart-felt and needs to be acknowledged. And it resonates with me.

    All my public life, during my very short sporting career and a long career as a journalist, I have experienced of racist comments, some more hurtful than others.

    I have written about the most obnoxious of these comments, as some readers of The Roar will know.

    Despite this background and a sympathy for anyone who is subjected to racist or homophobic comments, I am ambivalent about totally supporting David Pocock’s determination to make a public issue over Potgieter’s comments.

    There is a certain selectivity involved in the Potgieter matter that concerns me.

    I ask myself, is any homophobic comment so outrageous that it must be publicly exposed and re-education imposed on the person making it?

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.