August 9, 2013
Racism and Rugby
An open letter to the Board of the Marin Highlanders RFC
After an exciting first year of rugby my 10-year-old is chomping at the bit to play again. While he loves sports–skateboarding, basketball and soccer, he really, really took to rugby. I was pleasantly surprised and up until recently knew very little about rugby. My son thrived I was, and remain, very happy for him. Throughout the 2012-2013 season I was favorably impressed by his team’s organization, discipline, teamwork and team spirit. My favorable impression was, in no small part, due to the coaching staff, led by Paul Cingolani. ‘Coach Paul’ inspired my son and gently helped him adjust to a large group of diverse kids and a strange new sport with seemingly arcane references–‘props’, ‘scrums’ and ‘rucks’ were new terms for us.
It was with great disappointment that I learned ‘Coach Paul’ would be leaving the Highlanders this coming season.
A July 22nd Board vote led to a public memo the next day from the President of Marin Highlanders RFC citing a decision to “terminate the services” of the varsity head coach, David Cingolani, Paul’s brother. A public meeting to inform interested parents as to the reasons behind this decision was scheduled.
The next day, the formation of a ‘North Bay Rugby Club’ was announced. Paul’s brother was listed as Director of Rugby and the new head coach of the varsity team. A long list of other coaches and parents, presumably in support of the move, was included with the announcement; Paul’s name was on the list.
My son was so taken with ‘Coach Paul’ that he took it upon himself to write him a letter expressing his thanks and admiration. I made many, many visits to practices and games. ‘Coach Paul’ always conducted himself with a coaching professionalism and regard for children that I think is unique, and laudable.
I think it is fair to say that many parents share this opinion of ‘Coach Paul’ and while I don’t know him socially, his reputation as a coach is untarnished.
I do not know, nor have I had any contact with, his brother.
This all feels like a family break-up; but if there is any chance of our leaving the Highlanders and joining ‘Coach Paul’ and the new league, that decision would face a daunting obstacle.
The Highlanders president announced the time and place of the Board meeting (August 5) and that the board would: explain why it terminated the head coach and why it had refrained from making any public statements; give a run down on the history, philosophy and principles of Highlander rugby; and, set out plans for the upcoming season.
I thought the order of events made sense and that clearly something had transpired that could well have legal implications. The Highlanders Board was behaving in a transparent, responsible fashion designed to protect a 33-year-old league with a solid, venerable reputation.
I didn’t attend the Board Meeting on August 5, but I have spoken with numerous parents who did. Also, the Board issued a “Rugby Parent/Coach Meeting Summary” of the meeting from which we can distill the following points:
The Board set out a “clear chronology of recent events” involving the former varsity head coach that included complaints of “verbal abuse, intimidation, and humiliation of players and condoning of alcohol consumption by the team.”
That wording is from the written summary of the meeting. Some parents and coaches, however, made it clear that there were verifiable instances of racial abuse, racist taunts and a frat culture (drinking, hazing) tolerated, condoned and perhaps encouraged by the varsity coach. There were numerous personal, written testimonies to this effect.
Are these complaints justified?
Were the testimonies read to the Board accurate and truthful?
The evidence strongly suggests that they are. These complaints, as documented and recounted at the very public Highlander Board meeting, demonstrate a long-established pattern of abuse. It appears as though this was tolerated, for many years. It is less clear why (a winning record trumps civility? The threat of social ostracism? Scholarships would be jeopardized?). The accusations have an aura of authenticity; some of them were made by people who themselves were enmeshed within what sounds like a culture of conflict avoidance, of looking the other way.
Everything I have heard from the meeting strongly suggests that the Board has taken the correct course of action. It is equally clear that more should have been done by the Board, earlier, and that still more needs to be done.
The Highlander Board wrote that an honorable sports program should “transcend the cult of an individual coach.” It should also transcend the ‘cult of the perpetual adolescent’. In other words, when our children are found to be drinking or doing drugs, hazing other kids, and hurling racist insults, this is regrettable behavior that requires intervention. When adults engage in racist, bigoted behavior it is deeply disturbing–more than just regrettable–and requires active opposition.
The Highlander Board should consider adopting a stronger policy on bigoted behavior when it occurs on the part of players and/or coaches. The day my son witnesses, or, god forbid, is involved with racist abuse is the day that program becomes dangerous for my child. I feel fortunate he is only ten, and thus far mostly shielded from it.
It appears as though the Highlander Board has limited this issue to a problem centered on the varsity head coach. Or does it have deeper roots?
If this behavior has been as egregious as claimed, as persistent over time as the Board itself has alleged, (seven years?) then what is the proximate cause of the failure to intervene sooner?
If the Highlander Rugby RFC “expects all coaches to demonstrate civility, decency, maturity and respect in all coaching activities” how is it that this was allowed to go on as long as it did?
What are the safeguards you have in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again?
When responding to racism one should always make an assessment as to whether the behavior is organized or sporadic; whether the issue involves an organized hate group or perhaps is isolated to the malevolence of an individual–which can be bad enough–but not the same.
Lastly, racism in rugby is not new; do a google search on “racism and rugby” and you will find a university rugby team in the UK that was recently banned from competitions for 18 months after players dressed up in Ku Klux Klan outfits at a party, among other despicable behavior.
Perhaps there is a need for a full-throated policy of zero tolerance of racism?
Do we need to “show racism the red card” as FIFA Soccer does?
The problem of organized hate groups and football hooligans in Europe is an ongoing, serious issue about which I have absolutely no sense of humor.
In the 1990s I was a contributor to a community-based manual called When Hate Groups Come to Town. One of my core areas of responsibility were youth-based hate groups. The first, most important lesson I would teach parents was that racist behavior needed to be stopped early; that interrupting and halting hate-based behavior helps prevent it from metastasizing into full-blown organized bigotry–a hate group.
If you think this kind of stuff doesn’t happen in Marin County, think again. It happens everywhere–from board rooms to break rooms, schools to prisons–and it must be stopped. Passivity in the face of racial hatred signals acquiescence. Emmett Till, Mathew Shephard and other civil rights martyrs were slain as a result of this.
As an aside: It has been my profoundly disturbing experience that different forms of bigotry tend to coagulate: racist taunts invite homophobic slurs; anti-gay violence is a close cousin to misogyny.
It might be a good idea for the Highlander Board to invest in an anti-racist/anti-bias curriculum for players and perhaps look into the availability of such resources in area schools and places of worship.
I applaud the efforts of the Marin Highlander Rugby Club to confront these issues and look forward to their continuing, pro-active response.
My son and I will miss ‘Coach Paul’. I hope that some form of reconciliation is not out of reach, but it should not be at the expense of the Highlander program and should be within the context of a meaningful accounting for what has happened and the initiation of a program that can help us stop it from happening again.