As a longtime advocate of healthy masculinity, not to mention a passionate rugby fan for decades, gender equality researcher-advocate Garth Barker says he was intrigued when he learned that rugby’s national governing body, New Zealand Rugby (NZR), was launching a video series called Being Men. With rugby considered the country’s “national sport”—and half-jokingly also considered its national religion— Baker says he was curious about what they would include in the videos. The national rugby association governs not just local clubs and regional teams, but also professional franchise teams and national men’s and women’s teams. So what they recommended would have countrywide significance (www.NZRgby.co.nz/). What follows is his report on Being Men.
Imagine 17 current and former rough-and-tumble rugby players speaking on camera with intense emotional honesty about their lives and behaviors—the camera always in closeup on their faces. No cutaway shots; just men, exposed and vulnerable, speaking to the camera. Being Men is a conduit for direct, honest communication, a key behavior the videos want to promote.
The men share how reaching out to others, listening, being honest and self-aware, and managing emotions have been key to their getting through tough times, being healthier, and having better relationships. These are the same characteristics being championed by men wanting to move beyond the constraints of traditional masculinity and be more equitable, healthier, caring, or happier (including in toolboxes I developed for the White Ribbon Campaign; see Resources at the end of this article).
Being Men turned out to actually be four videos. They cover a range of topics including:
- Tough times: Exploring challenges men face with their mental well-being
- Asking for help: Examining challenges facing men when they do reach out
- “He said, she said”: What’s it like to fall in and out of love
- “We need to talk”: Carefully considering how men can talk openly and more often with each other about relationships.
What was a big surprise for me was that the videos were produced by and for the sport of rugby, a symbol—indeed a key foundation of—New Zealand’s expression of traditional masculinity. Half-jokingly referred to as our national religion, rugby has been so pivotal to New Zealand’s masculine identity that in the seminal 1996 book on kiwi men, A Man’s Country? The Image of the Pakeha Male by Jock Phillips, he devotes an entire chapter to it, aptly titled “The Hard Man: Rugby and the Formation of Character.”
In short, 150 years ago, when rugby was first introduced to this young, colonial country, which had a predominantly male population, it came freighted with high-minded Victorian views of masculinity: Tough, stoic men were useful for breaking in the land, but their rowdiness needed to be channeled into socially sanctioned outlets. Rugby built “muscular Christians,” squashing effeminacy and proving “virility.” It also demanded that individual emotions be suppressed for the team to function. It was played exclusively by men and its playing fields dominated public recreational spaces. As a schoolboy player a hundred years later, I found rugby still heavy with all these unspoken assumptions, though even then I was beginning to question their relevance.
Fast forward fifty years to 2020, and New Zealand Rugby’s governing body is now promoting an entirely different way of being men. What happened? Like some of the men in the videos, the sport had a crisis so demanding it compelled a new reaction.
In 2016 one of their professional teams hired a female stripper for a “Mad Monday” end-of-season, boozy blowout. Their lewd behavior, possibly involving nonconsensual touching, was reported in the media and a loud public outcry followed. Rugby had managed to escape scrutiny for previous incidents of players’ violence toward women, but this time the outpouring of anger—along with sharp, informed criticism about their lack of an effective systemic response—shocked NZR.
Rugby was caught up short, apparently clueless about the significant shifts in social norms well under way across the wider community. By 2016 men engaging in domestic and sexual violence against women was “not OK,” to repeat the well-used slogan of a 10-year-old government-led campaign. Alongside such social marketing, there had been also a decade of community engagement and a range of primary prevention projects—including a few that focused on promoting healthier, nonviolent male behavior.
Some individual rugby clubs and unions participated in the violence prevention movement, but too little had happened at the national level. By the time of the 2016 incident, there were activists who had been clearly articulating how antiquated and inexcusable watching a stripper was; how it was part of a culture of violence against women; that rugby had avoided taking responsibility; that it had abdicated using its privileged position to be a force for good among New Zealand men; and that rugby’s culture and systems had to change. Now.
To their credit, the NZR quickly and publicly accepted the reality that their institution had to change. Recognizing that they didn’t have the answers, they established an independent review panel comprised mainly of women. Called “Respect and Responsibility Review,” it made 91 recommendations “to ensure everyone involved in the game has the right information and understanding…[about] respect and responsibility to enable them to make the right decisions. This includes ensuring that our attitudes towards women in rugby, diversity, respect, responsibility and inclusiveness are in keeping with a world leading sports organization” (www.NZRgby.co.nz/what-wedo/rugby-responsibility/respect-and-responsibility-review).
NZR has since adopted “Respect and Inclusion” as a measure for their own corporate performance to hold themselves “accountable for our culture and how we behave.” They also established a new complaints management service and finally appointed a woman to their board.
Nicki Nicol, the NZR’s chief operating officer who has overseen many of these developments, explains that they now focus on “culture, so everyone feels included, as well as promoting diversity of ethnic and gender identities. We’re putting our people’s wellbeing at the center of what we do.” She notes that the NZR now has been accredited with the Rainbow Tick, a seal of approval for being a safe, welcoming, and inclusive place for people of diverse gender identity and sexual orientation.
Not unrelated, there’s also been an increase in the number of women rugby players, up nearly 15 percent in 2019, while the number of male players is dropping. For the first time, a woman referee officiated at a male players’ provincial game last year. And in 2018, Kendra Cocksedge, the halfback of the women’s national team, was the first female ever to win the New Zealand Rugby player of the year award.
Since 2016, the NZR has implemented a dedicated respect and responsibility project, now called Te Hurihanga/Be the Change. Drawing on the violence prevention expertise that had developed in the broader community, the NZR has employed staff to design and deliver training programs on domestic and sexual violence, child protection, and fostering healthy relationships. The NZR publicly stated that they want to “ensure we have safer rugby environments and highlight the positive impact we can have on society.”
Three years on, the NZR now has a range of primary prevention initiatives under way that are changing their culture. They also have new and robust systems in place. According to Nicki Nicol, “People are at the center of everything we do. We’re enhancing people’s experience of rugby, which we hope will flow out into their communities.”
Meanwhile, the NZR has a range of development programs for the rugby players they employ, or who show promise. These help participants to better manage the demands of professional sport, as well as the normal life challenges facing a young person. They include developing their mental and emotional resilience through workshops and resources, such as self-tests and videos of experienced players describing how they have managed. All the programs are under the banner Headfirst: Fit Minds for Tough Times.
The NZR’s approach to supporting players reflects an increasing public discussion of men’s mental health in New Zealand, including the high rate of male suicides, and an accompanying rollout of community initiatives that promote better mental wellbeing, especially for men. As with the contemporaneous development of violence prevention, a public health approach is being taken. For example, at the launch of the Being Men videos I sat next to the manager of Farmstrong, an organization promoting wellbeing and resiliency for farmers. They use a high-profile rugby player as their ambassador. And a legend of the game, Sir John Kirwan, has openly discussed his own anxiety and depression; his personal revelations led the way in shifting attitudes and promoting well-being. (In 2012 he was knighted for his services to mental health and rugby.)
Both NZR projects, Te Hurihanga/Be the Change and Headfirst, were keenly aware of how traditional male socialization directly contributes to men’s violence and destructive behavior and undermines men’s well-being. They have been dealing with the bitter harvest of male socialization every day. So when they were approached by Sarah Grohnert, an independent documentary filmmaker interested in doing a project about New Zealand men, they immediately saw the potential (http://sarahgrohnert.com/en).
They worked together on the topics and questions and on finding suitable participants. Then Sarah interviewed a mix of men, including some current and ex-players. (A woman camera operator shot all the interview footage.) Over 50 hours of rich material was skillfully edited down to the four 15-to-16-minute-long videos that make up the film.
What I found so heartening about Being Men was that while individual participants had typically developed their own strategies, they were the same actions men could take if they wanted to move beyond traditional male socialization. While several mentioned the mask men typically wear, the participants didn’t talk explicitly about challenging gender expectations, even though that was precisely what they were doing. They come across as ordinary guys who are perceptive, self-aware, and willing to change. That truth completely subverts the stereotypes of what a rugby player is and in so doing exemplifies new ways for all New Zealand men to be. And maybe, just maybe, men everywhere.
Garth Baker has worked on a range of gender transformative projects for New Zealand men. He also has a long, abiding interest in rugby and has written about the game. His comprehensive report prepared for White Ribbon New Zealand, “What #MeToo Asks of Men,” appeared in the Fall 2018 issue. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Being Men videos: https://www.headfirst.co.nz/being-men/
The Headfirst: Fit Minds for Tough Times program and resources: https://www.headfirst.co.nz/
The Farmstrong website with wellbeing and resiliency resources for farmers: https://farmstrong.co.nz/
Information on Sir John Kirwan’s work and resources for mental wellbeing: https://jkfoundation.org.nz/
White Ribbon New Zealand’s toolboxes for men: https://whiteribbon.org.nz/toolbox/