Opinion: Climate activists in rugby and sport deserve support, not hate
Speaking after his team’s painful loss in the Gallagher Premiership final on Saturday, Sale Sharks boss Alex Sanderson was asked about his views on climate activism. Not an area of expertise, he nonetheless had some thoughts.
His team eventually lost by 10 points, but the score was 6-6 when two Just Stop Oil protesters ran onto the field wearing orange shirts, waved their conspicuously skinny arms in the air, and set off orange powder bombs.
Play resumed a few minutes later when they were carried from the field. Sale’s Tom Curry did some of the lifting himself. “I don’t understand why it did happen,” Sanderson said.
And though he conceded that, as head coach of a Premiership team, he couldn’t “throttle” the protesters himself, he did blame them for creating “a break in the game” from which Saracens took the lead through a penalty try that also cost Sale a yellow card.
Let’s take Sanderson at his word. Maybe the answers are not so obvious to those deeply immersed in rugby matters. So for those unfamiliar with the motivations behind last Saturday’s unexpected intermission, here is a two-pronged response:
The first reason why Sam Johnson, a 40-year-old construction worker from Essex, and Dr Patrick Hart, a 37-year-old GP from Bristol, disrupted the game is that the planet is becoming increasingly uninhabitable.
That is a fact. Some may argue against the overwhelming science, but there are also those who believe that the earth is flat. A column on a rugby website has as much chance of convincing them that we live on a globe as it does swaying the opinion of climate deniers. There is no point in attempting to do that here.
Instead, the conversation worth having concerns the merit of disruption at sports events. Is it the right way to draw attention to a cause? Can it ever be widely accepted by the public? Does it work? Is it necessary?
Right and wrong are subjective terms. But if you draw a moral line in the sand here, then you are obligated to suggest another way to help accelerate the discourse around the climate emergency.
Whatever you propose, eco-warriors, as these people have been branded, have tried it already. The activists who are gluing themselves to famous artworks or walking slowly on the road are fighting the same fight as lawyers, CEOs and NGOs. But it’s a fight we are collectively losing and fringe elements of any movement will always grab headlines. In a way that is why they exist.
Last week, the oil company Shell had its annual shareholder meeting in London disrupted by protestors who stood up and began singing, “Go to hell, Shell” to the tune of Hit the Road Jack by Ray Charles. Did you notice?
Perhaps you did. But there are many people who were at Twickenham last weekend or watching the broadcast at home who might have missed this action directed at those responsible for the mess.
The point is that sport is unrivalled in its ability to project a message. For whatever reason, sport is the most ubiquitously followed cultural pillar in our world today. Pick up a random newspaper in London, Lahore, Lusaka, or Los Angeles and flip to the back page. It’s not likely you will be reading a story about music, the arts, or gardening.
This torchlit stage is an enticing platform for activists and it has been well-used in the past. Emily Davison’s protest at the 1913 Epsom Derby, which cost her her life when she was struck by King George V’s horse, was the first iconic melding of sport and disruptive political protest.
Women in Britain would have eventually won the right to vote, but this incident accelerated the movement and reminded the ruler of the realm that half his subjects were being treated as second-class citizens.
Davison received hate mail while dying in hospital for four days, but history has since found Davison on the right side of history. Those who penned vengeful letters, no doubt espousing the claim that sports and politics shouldn’t mix, now look backwards in their beliefs.
So too do the defenders of apartheid in South Africa who booed when protestors stormed rugby fields in Britain and Ireland in 1969 and 1970, as well as in New Zealand in 1981. For these people, 80 minutes of sport was more important than justice. They had drawn up a hierarchy of needs and placed tries and tackles above equality and freedom from oppression.
The Springboks’ rebel tour, which the 1981 series in New Zealand has been dubbed, is a shameful blot on the sport’s heritage. The 350 people who tore down a perimeter fence at Rugby Park in Hamilton, as well as the pilots who dropped flour bombs in Auckland, should be revered as heroes.
What they did helped thrust a largely ignored conversation into homes that wouldn’t have had them otherwise. They ran with the anti-apartheid slogan that there should be no normal sport in an abnormal society and their actions played a direct role in the dismantling of a repressive South African regime.
Scientists have proved that our society today is not normal. Natural disasters which have been a constant throughout human history will increase in frequency and intensity in our lifetime. A projected 1.2billion people will be displaced around the world as a result of floods and droughts and storms by 2050. That is in 27 years’ time. The Springboks’ World Cup win in 1995 was 28 years ago.
We are hurtling towards catastrophe. Our future is at stake. World Rugby launched a new environmental sustainability plan last year aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2040, but more needs to be done.
Five former World Cup hosts – Japan, Australia, South Africa, the UK, and France – are among the top 20 carbon-emitting countries in the world. Activism on a rugby field by fans or outspoken players might seem insignificant, but doing nothing simply isn’t an option.
So rather than hurl abuse and overpriced beer at those prepared to go to prison in order to amplify this life-and-death struggle, take a moment and reflect on what is really at stake here.
A few minutes of entertainment? Or collective support for reform in order to persevere life on this planet? If you subscribe to rugby’s vaunted values, there is only one acceptable answer.
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