What the craze for rugby says about our relationship to violence

What the craze for rugby says about our relationship to violence

In recent months, violence has invaded our screens. Violence during riots this summer. Violence during certain demonstrations against the pension reform. Violence in clashes between demonstrators and police in Sainte-Soline. Settling scores with heavy weapons against a backdrop of drug trafficking in Marseille.

At the same time, we observe a popular enthusiasm for certain violent sports, such as rugby. The last Grand Slam of the French team in the Six Nations Tournament, in 2022, thus brought together 34,2 million French viewers. The Rugby World Cup, which starts on Friday September 8 in France, promises to break all audience records. What does popular enthusiasm for this sport say about our relationship to violence?

For each professional rugby match, 4 players must leave the field due to injury, on average.

Not to mention the frequent temporary exits for bleeding or suspected concussion... The neurological damage to rugby players, now well documented, is the consequence of the accumulation of these violent shocks. In 2018, a dark series during which 4 young French rugby players died has also raised awareness among the general public and rugby authorities.

Violence and sporting spectacle

The degree of violence accepted in sporting events would be a reflection of the level of violence in a given society, according to the analysis of Norbert Elias. The degree of violence in modern sporting spectacles is thus much lower than that offered, for example, in the ancient Olympic Games: wrestlers practicing pankration then confronted each other in sometimes terrible battles.

According to Norbert Elias, the level of acceptance of acts of violence in sporting events was higher then, because the general level of physical violence and insecurity was then also much higher than that of our current society.

However, watching a rugby match is of course be confronted with some violence somewhat primitive and wild between individuals.

The shocks capture the attention of the spectators who project themselves into the fight taking place before their eyes. An identification with individuals who are valiant and resistant to pain can thus be observed.

In addition, attending the spectacle of these shocks allows (TV) spectators to immerse themselves in a reality freed from many of the artifices of usual social life.

During the match, we focus on certain elements of the human condition: fighting to defend one's territory, forcing one's rivals back, showing solidarity, sacrificing individually for a collective cause...

Toulouse flanker Thierry Dusautoir, center, against Toulon, in September 2016. Pascal Pavani/AFP

Players like Gregory Aldritt or before him, Thierry Dusautoir et Jean-Pierre Rives embody these elements in the eyes of the general public.

Rugby and the domestication of violence

This form of bestiality is, however, closely regulated by a set of very complex and evolving rules. This spectacle is only slightly attractive for an individual who would watch it without having been initiated by a parent, an educator, a friend or a commentator, capable of decoding the actions and interpreting them.

Spectators are therefore not left alone in the face of raw violence. Compliance of actions with the rules and spirit of the game is constantly debated between them.

The actions are even extensively commented on by the referees live, as they make their decisions during the matches. In front of their television, everyone can see their now constant concern to preserve the safety of the players.

Thus, fans of this sport evaluate and appreciate the players' ability to combine this element of savagery with certain refinements, such as mischief, the science of the game, knowledge of the rules and a form of aesthetics.

The rules of the game are very evolving: regularly, they come to regulate violence more to better ensure the safety of the players. However, some codes and values ​​are immutable. The respect given to opponents and the referee is, for example, sacred.

The spectacle of rugby is thus part of a nature/culture dialectic, mixing wildness and refinement, associating an immutable code of honor and the complexity of evolving rules. The spectacle of the players' shocks and pain then creates the conditions for reflection and discussions on the acceptability and limits of violence. We are thus talking about a domestication of it in the face of the spectacle of pain.

Rather than evacuating the negative dimensions of their experience, spectators seek to explore the ambivalence of the game, fueled by raw violence and sophistication. Consequently, the discussion between individuals at the stadium or in front of the television makes it possible to explore the nature/culture dialectic in a perspective that goes beyond that of the stakes of a match.

Symbolic projections

If the spectacle of violence is appreciated, it is also because the pain following the shocks is associated with a whole symbolic and moral content.

Already in the Baroque era, representations of bloody and suffering bodies were the central subjects of many disciplines – theater, poetry, stories, sonnets, political pamphlets, theological works, biographies, hagiographies and shows.

These images and evocations provided a moral lesson, a subject for thought or an instrument of meditation. In the same way, public executions which attracted heterogeneous crowds systematically allowed the authorities to deliver a political, moral or religious message, and for the crowd to express an opinion.

The suffering bodies of rugby players also form the receptacle of symbolic projections. They help to discuss the validity of norms: the extent to which the rules of the game and their interpretation are compatible with our view of right and wrong.

Sensitive to interpersonal violence

Since the horror of the Second World War, we note that violence tends to be the subject of permanent disqualification, morality and politics. We have become hypersensitive to interpersonal violence.

However, some anthropologists believe that it is omnipresent and inherent to human societies. It is described in many stories whether through myths or epic. An aesthetic dimension of combat, for millennia, was also identified. For René Girard as for Georges Bataille, violence obsesses us, occupies our debates, torments our passions and our reasons.

In conclusion, the craze for rugby testifies both to our fascination for violence and to our awareness that it should not unfold without limits or safeguards. Since we have to deal with it, rugby offers precisely the spectacle of indicted violence. The constantly updated rules prevent it from reaching uncontrollable intensity. Violence is confronted with a refinement of codes and constantly situated with regard to fundamental moral values. Rugby therefore encourages reflection and debate on violence.

However, let us remain vigilant. Certain attempts at aestheticization and folklorization of violence in rugby contribute to normalizing it. This is of course never trivial, so trivializing it would be a mistake.

Clement Dubreuil, Professor and researcher at KEDGE Business School, author of a thesis on violence and rugby, Kedge Business School

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.
Image credit: Shutterstock / WHISKHEELS


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