Geoff Johnson: Why a ‘hooligans game played by gentlemen’ beats politics

If you have become addicted to “news” channels like CNN, MSNBC, even CBC and their 24/7 analysis of the shenanigans which pass, here and in the U.S., for responsible politics there is, until November, a TV antidote guaranteed to change your despair into optimism about how a game, any game, even the game of politics should be played.

It is called Rugby World Cup and it is on TV right now.

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This is a good time to turn off Wolf Blitzer, Lawrence O’Donnell, even Rosemary Barton.

Why is watching rugby better than watching politics?

Rugby, like politics, is a team sport played by opposing teams but there the comparison ends.

To begin with, a rugby game lasts only 80 minutes after which the players shake hands, clap each other on the back and go for a beer together.

Politics is eternal with no conclusion in sight — not even after an election.

A rugby game has two opposing teams, each composed of only 15 players, large men with no necks who wear as little as possible in terms of protective gear.

They enjoy physical contact and are impervious to pain.

That’s different from politics. Politicians tend to be not just physically but emotionally sensitive and their idea of contact sports is safely shouting insults across the wide aisle of the legislature.

Rugby has been called “a hooligans game played by gentlemen” as opposed to politics which is, as British publisher, writer and political publicist Ernest Benn explained, “the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”

That would not work in a rugby game.

Conflict, in rugby, is a simple matter. Players attempt to physically batter their opponents into the turf and then lend a hand or receive a congratulatory pat on the back from the victim for a tackle well made.

Political conflict, on the other hand, personalizes every issue while distorting and disturbing observers’ sense of distinction between matters of importance and matters of urgency.

In rugby, the objective is simple: To move an oblong ball across the opposing team’s goal line.

The honesty of this would confuse many politicians (and news commentators) because, as Donald Rumsfeld once famously said, “we (politicians) know there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are things we know we don’t know.”

That kind of thinking would slow a rugby game to the point of torpor.

The boss on the rugby field of play is the referee, usually a diminutive but sprightly official who is often the smallest man on the field with only a whistle used to emphasize his authority — nearly always unquestioned by the 30 massive players whose actions he adjudicates.

That’s different from politics where it is never clear who, if anybody, is actually in charge or what the rules are anyway.

Rarely do you see players questioning a decision by the referee. Verbal abuse of match officials can be punished by up to a year’s suspension.

Perhaps the most refreshing difference between rugby and politics is that rugby is decent and is a game played by the rules.

Often, penalties are awarded when a player cynically tries to slow play down or compete for the ball illegally.

Foul play is defined as “anything a player does within the playing enclosure that is against the letter and spirit of the ‘Laws of the Game. ’ ”

Misconduct in rugby is any conduct, sometimes on or off the field, that is unsporting, unruly, ill-disciplined or that brings the sport of rugby union into disrepute.

Australian rugby officials announced recently that they intended to terminate the million-dollar contract of a star player, Israel Folau, after he posted anti-gay comments on social media.

Rugby is blind to race with most teams being multicultural, no matter under which flag they play.

Racial or other discriminatory abuse could, and sometimes does, see a player banned for up to a year.

Above all, rugby is about the truth and integrity. No denying that it is you carrying the ball. No pointing the finger at another player. No lying about what you are actually doing.

A player can’t lie his or her way up the field — “this football? Not mine. Don’t know how it got here under my arm. Maybe one of your team?”

Need a break from the unprincipled quagmire of politics?

Try the Rugby World Cup.

Geoff Johnson is a former Superintendent of Schools.

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