The men's rugby team at the London School of Economics has been suspended for the entire school year for a brochure replete with homophobic and sexist comments.
At last week's "Freshers Fair," where new students can discover the various clubs and groups of the school, at the men's rugby club table, students could find a brochure chock full of racism, sexism, homophobia, and elitism.
As described in LSE's student newspaper The Beaver:
The literature promised prospective members a year including Tour and its "downright depravity of fag night" and hustings for club captains which would include questions "predominantly about their sexual persuasion" while assuring readers that "we at the LSE do not enjoy drinking urine or participating in various forms of homosexual humiliation."
Ironically, the same text also stated that "Wednesdays never fail to produce the perfect hedonistic cocktail of barbarianism, beverages and women all shaken well with a liberal lashing of homo-eroticism."
The leaflet's appendix contained references to "hockey, netball and rugby birds" as "beast-like women who play sport just so they can come out with us on Wednesdays" while adding "don't let them tell you otherwise."
There's more where that came from, and students, first and foremost from the LSE's Feminist Society, alerted the Student Union (which in UK universities generally has more autonomy and authority than in their U.S. counterparts), which confiscated the brochures and launched an investigation.
Pardon my ignorance, but I had always assumed that the London School of Economics was a place where you found graduate students, MBAs, research fellows, and the like. As it turns out, it's a rather big institution, part of the University of London, with over 10,000 students, nearly half of whom are undergraduates. Where you have undergraduates, you have the typical activities of young students, including sports teams (2,500 students are members of a school sports group). And because it's in England, you have rugby, with both women's and men's rugby clubs.
The rugby club attempted damage control, with a very nicely worded statement that included this bit:
LSE Men's Rugby does not tolerate misogyny, racism, homophobia or prejudice of any description and the Club remains committed to the LSE's equal opportunities policy.
The language sounds right, but it's not very convincing when nearly every page of this brochure contains so much misogyny, racism, homophobia, and prejudice of various description. Sometimes words speak louder than words.
The statement also said:
We take full responsibility for what has happened and it has highlighted the need for any previously used club literature to be properly scrutinized before being reproduced.
Let's assume this is a new document. It cannot have been the work of one person. Multiple members of the club must have at the least seen it before it was distributed. And if it's "previously used club literature," then the case is even worse: it has been seen and approved for use on multiple occasions.
The statement also shows that despite using the "right" language, the club simply doesn't get it. "We have a lot to learn about the pernicious effects of ‘banter' and we are organizing a workshop for all our members." Sexist, racist, and homophobic "banter" is indeed a problem in sport. Workshops are great. But this brochure was far from spontaneous banter that might be overlooked as coming in the heat of the moment. This is a brochure that someone, normally several people, took time to write, review, proofread, print, distribute, etc.
As a result, the Student Union has decided to suspend the club for the academic year.
Because during the initial investigation no members of the club have been gentlemanly (the brochure repeatedly refers to club members as "gentlemen") enough to accept responsibility, the investigation is continuing to determine appropriate sanctions for individual members of the club.
The UK is particularly advanced in dealing with homophobia in sport. There are multiple organizations and campaigns, including Football v Homophobia, the Gay Football Supporters Network, an official Charter against homophobia in sport. And so it's no surprise that the Student Union has taken such strong action. But beyond the "politics" of this incident, what does it mean in terms of sport?
Charley Sullivan, a rowing coach at the University of Michigan who is openly gay, finds that there is a universal pattern of sometimes inappropriate "banter." But he notes that this is not the best way to build a team:
"Unfortunately, sometimes athletes, and particularly male athletes, choose to bond through a culture of belittling exclusion. Good teams are built on inclusiveness and respect. The LSE Men's Rugby club, having shown an unfortunate level of sexism and homophobia, has apologized for their flyer. Hopefully it is a sincere apology. If they want to develop a winning team culture over the long haul, they need to use this suspension to rebuild on a foundation of true respect, beyond lip service to principles of diversity and inclusion, and in a way that avoids simply driving this unacceptable mentality underground, where it's even harder to address."
Sullivan brought his team to Britain earlier this year to row in the Henley Royal Regatta:
"I was surprised at how little visibility there was for anything queer, given the reputation of the UK as being relatively advanced in fighting homophobia in and through sport. But I think that this may be due to the culture of Henley, which is very much a public school [elite private school] event. And given the profile of LSE, I would not be surprised that rugby players there share a similar culture which is less homophobic than simply blind to discrimination."
Whether seen from the point of view of policy and politics or from that of sport, this incident is sure to have an impact on the school. LSE had been known for its outstanding education and research in the social sciences (rated 2nd in the world), for its Nobel Prize winners (16 in all), and its outsized influence in British politics and policy development. It now, at least for a few days, will be known as the alma mater of some particularly boorish young men.