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Opinion: Climate activists in rugby and sport deserve support, not hate

By Daniel Gallan
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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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Comments

9 Comments
g
guy 419 days ago

It’s difficult to know where to even begin with an article like this. So i’ll just call it what it is; horseshit. And supercilious, condescending horseshit at that.

But begin i must, so i’d like to ask the author and those that agree with him what they think the evidential basis for anthropogenic global warming is?

If you want to talk about consensus (there isn’t one) can you please tell me what the actual EVIDENCE that has formed this illusory consensus is that CO2 emissions drive climate change, and have ever driven climate change.

I’ve got a shock for you; there isn’t any! The entire argument that humans are responsible for a changing climate is based on computer modelling, which is deeply, deeply flawed!

These messianic, virtue signalling, well intentioned but feckless protesters are going to send us back to the stone age if we don’t expose this climate change sham for what it is.

Just stop oil, jesus christ. Has anyone seen the conditions that child labourers in the congo are exposed to digging cobalt for batteries out of the ground? Does anyone have any opinions about the 225 tons of mineral ore that has to be pulled out of the earth and processed to make one car battery? What about that environmental cost?

P
Peter 420 days ago

Well said!

N
NHinSH 420 days ago

Finally an article with some sense on the matter

Pretty much every cause of note has required disruption to get noticed.

J
J 420 days ago

One of the defining mantra of XR (Just Stop are an extreme group of climate activists and are not XR) is that the system is wrong, not the people trapped in it. This is about the fact that we can't all switch to e-vehicles or hop on public transport; the current system cannot support it or isn't there.
There is no anti-capitalist agenda, the agenda is much bolder and deeper than that. Take something as stupid, ephemeral and childish as helium balloons. We have a finite quantity of helium on the planet so what do we do when it's gone. What do we do when all the iron or copper or tantalum has been consumed. What do we do when CO2 overwhelms the reducing plant life and spirals, how do we address the accelerating temperature rise?
This really is about destructive consumption.
Capitalism and individual ambition will drive us towards a solution, but plundering our entirely shared resource (the planet earth) is literally flying us into the ground.
As Daniel says without the Sufragette movement women's right to vote was doomed to circle the plug hole of political action, going no where.
JSO or XR or Insulate Britain are Sufragette-Lite.

T
The Chassis Chisler 420 days ago

Disrupting games v The Springboks when arpartheid was in full flow is completely different to this.

A
Alex 420 days ago

Respectfully disagree. In my experience, "climate activism" almost never has anything do with the climate.

We have a way, today, to stop using a huge portion of the oil we need. Nuclear. But these chuckleheads oppose nuclear because it's not really about the climate, it's about their childish fantasy of "dismantling capitalism."

Climate change is real and humans are at least contributing to it, if not the main cause. I don't think it's quite the apocalyptic emergency some are making it out to be, but it's a problem. Additionally there are real environmental issues like oceanic plastic and deforestation/habitat destruction and poaching which I care deeply about.

These idiots trying to deface art and storming sport pitches are not the people the listen too when looking to solve these problems. They don't care. They live in a highly privileged, university fomented fantasy world. I hope the police throw the book at them.

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