The Last Word: The danger of saying 'no' to having your bed urinated on

Rugby must beware of following NFL initiation rituals that left one player in a mental facility

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The victim, a young rugby player, had a pillowcase placed loosely over his head. He heard bitter, almost crazed, laughter before unseen hands rubbed excrement into his face and liniment around his genitals.

His ordeal was not over. Another initiation ceremony involved a shuttle race in a pub, in which he was stripped to his underpants and forced to eat sheep's eyeballs and cat food. Someone squirted Tabasco sauce in his eyes. The pain was indescribable, but he dared not flinch. Big boys don't cry. It will be another newbie's turn soon.

That victim grew into a hero, a warrior king. He put his body on the line for his mates and loved playing for his country. He relished the physicality of his sport and the intimacy of the dressing room.

He accepted its rituals and became accustomed to self-sacrifice. Such was the ferocity of his ambition and the strength of his loyalty to the group that he thought nothing of playing on when clearly concussed. Real men refuse to succumb. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

He's a survivor. Getting out of bed on cold mornings is an uncomfortable experience, because his shoulders and back are "shot", but the trophy cabinet, stuffed with caps, jerseys and an array of mementoes, beats a pension plan.

His sport has reached a crossroads. Medical evidence concerning the cumulative effects of head injuries is mounting. Lawyers are hovering, seeking to take advantage of the merest hint of laxness in the application of preventative policies. Move on, people. Nothing to see here.

Rugby has never had to deal with the sort of controversy currently convulsing American Football but it should not recoil from assessing where its macho culture could lead. The NFL, and most pertinently veteran players damaged during its development into a sporting monolith, is still addressing the consequences of concussion, which resulted in a $765m (£477m) class action settlement.

The last thing it needed was the nightmare scenario of a case involving racism, homophobia and institutionalised bullying. Miami Dolphins' offensive lineman Richie Incognito has been suspended for allegedly victimising and maltreating team-mate Jonathan Martin.

The response to the sanction, and its supplementary investigation, was dark but illuminating.

Martin, the victim, was portrayed as the problem. Peers accused him of cowardice. They railed at him for breaking the sacred code of the locker room and ignoring the merits of retaliatory justice.

Their ignorance was enshrined by New York Giants safety Antrel Rolle, who told Martin: "You're a grown-ass man. You need to stand up for yourself." Legendary coach Mike Ditka suggested he should have taken his persecutor "to fist city". The inference was clear. Man up, or ship out.

Martin, who briefly checked into a mental-health clinic and has gone to ground with his family, is defending himself through statements issued by his lawyer. Some of the threats aimed at his sister by an unnamed team-mate are so vile they cannot be repeated with a clear conscience.

When seeking help becomes an issue because it is perceived as not being a masculine act, we are at the ragged edge of reason. It isolates the vulnerable and empowers the oppressor. The consequences can be devastating, even deadly.

Martin's career may well be over. In a sport where outbreaks of steroidal rage are not uncommon, it was probably wise he had the courage to be cautious.

Pillowcases also feature in American Football's initiation rituals. Cam Cleeland had one over his head when he ran the gauntlet through New Orleans Saints team-mates. Colleagues who refused to do so had their beds urinated upon and belongings destroyed.

Cleeland was kicked, punched and then hit in the face with a sock filled with coins. His eye socket was shattered and he still has only partial vision. Yet for eight years, he played up and played the game.

Perhaps that is the problem.

England have no chance till 2030

Dan Ashworth, the FA's director of elite development, put this international break into perspective at a conference in midweek. By accepting it will take "between three and sixteen years" to establish a cogent playing philosophy through the Academy system, he effectively deferred England's World Cup ambitions until 2030.

Ashworth, who worked with England manager Roy Hodgson at West Bromwich, traced the national team's consistent failure in knockout stages of major tournaments to a lack of competitive experience at youth level. Emerging Spanish and German players have typically played 50 representative games when they graduate into the senior squad; English players have generally had 20.

The system is complicated immeasurably by agents, who pressurise the FA when their players are dropped down the age groups, to augment their education.

Ashworth insists England must be "more strategic and aggressive" in targeting the immigrant community and players with dual nationality. The production of a modern international footballer involves greater sophistication in profiling their social, intellectual and psychological development.

Ashworth has his work cut out, but given the long-term nature of his job, theoretically at least, time on his side.

Yawning gap

Shane Yawn, typecast as a Test match troll, is doing his best by haranguing Alastair Cook. There's understandable bemusement at the Poms' mungbean curry but little enthusiasm for old-school barracking. The familiarity of this Ashes series is breeding indiffer- ence, which is worse than contempt.