Can you be clearer about the allegations made against the RFC?
Rob Bloomer: I’d like to be clear that they are not allegations, they are complaints. These complaints have been from more than one source on similar and the same issues, all independently submitted: for example, a bus company deciding they won’t work with the rugby club anymore. From my perspective, if they want to tell you what the exact complaints are, that’s up to them, but we’re not going to air their dirty laundry in public. We can only say that racism and sexism are unacceptable.
Tash Ross: The case is that we’re trying to be as constructive as we can. By giving you a list of things we’ve been made aware of, it would make it much more difficult for us to appear like we’re being neutral. It would seem like we’re slagging them off. We don’t want to do that, we just want to deal with the situation in the best way we can.
RB: Furthermore, there also has not been a denial of behaviour from the RFC. We had the RFC president in here before anything was released to the public at Union Council. There was no denial then and there hasn’t been one from the club since. I hope they do appeal, however, as it will either prove that we’re accurate with what we’re saying, or if they present something we didn’t previously know about we can be fair to them.
What evidence is there that the RFC is markedly more badly behaved than other sports clubs?
RB: There’s only been one incident on a similar level to this, and it was reported on in Concrete last year: £1,800 of criminal damage to a hotel is wrong. There is no other club that has done anything like that. These complaints are even worse, because they involve racism and sexism.
TR: As soon as it becomes something that might affect the experiences of students negatively, we don’t have any choice but to act severely. Similar complaints about a different club would be treated just as severely. We’ve had to punish the RFC for something every year for the past 5 years, but it’s not entirely about that: we have to be true to our word and stick to our values of equality.
Is the ban purely a result of the racism and sexism charges?
RB: It is a culmination of all the offences, but the reason we acted so fast was because of the racism and sexism. If it had been general bad behaviour or damage we would have acted more slowly. However, the Union has a clear policy of no tolerance towards discrimination. Clubs and committees sign up to behave in line with Union policy each year. Simply, the RFC have broken an agreement.
Had the decision been planned for a while?
RB: The decision is entirely in reaction to the complaints we received on Thursday (15 March). Until last week, rugby hadn’t been that much of a problem this year, although they were on their last chance after previous incidences. Members of the committee this year were aware of this.
Have you disciplined any individual members of the club?
RB: We have not been given names yet. If the individual members are named, then they will get the bans, not people who were innocent. It will also become much more serious because we can investigate individual people regarding the racism complaints. Andy [Driver, RFC president] has been clear that he wants this to be the case, as he doesn’t want everyone in the club to be stained with the same thing.
TR: We are very clear that any kind of act to protect those individuals is an indication that the club thinks what they did was alright. That’s certainly been the case in the past: especially when the case is serious, it would just imply that they think it is all banter. That is not acceptable.
Is the decision to ban the club economically sensible, as the Union is in a deficit, and the club brings in paying members every year?
RB: All the money collected from members as subs goes back into the club. It is cost neutral and this decision has nothing at all to do with the deficit. I should add that there is certainly no financial incentive for us to get rid of anything,
TR: For every £1 we make with SAM, another £3 goes back into sports clubs. It’s unlikely that would-be rugby players not playing SAM would impact as we subsidise them so heavily anyway.
How will you prevent other clubs from feeling like they’re being monitored on nights out?
RB: I’d say to those clubs that they shouldn’t be hesitant about going out. However, they need to be reminded that as members of a club they need to stick to the rules laid out by the Union. Students are adults and deserve to be treated as such, but this means that they need to take responsibility for their actions as well. Whether it’s on a bus, or at sports night, if someone’s going to be racist they need to take responsibility for that.
TR: If clubs and societies are more willing to tell their lairy members to pipe down that can only be a good thing.
So this is a student welfare issue, more than anything else?
TR: Yes. Ultimately, we’re an organisation that believes in equality and diversity and protecting students’ experiences. If a team is on its way to a game in a coach that we’ve paid for and wearing kit that we’ve paid for, and the members are behaving like that, we have to act.
RB: Student welfare is the main issue, but as a side issue it is a bad thing for the Union and for the University as a whole when you’re in a situation where other universities, bus companies, or hotels are saying they don’t want anything to do with you anymore because of the actions of one of your clubs. And they don’t say individuals, they say the club.
Will the club still be banned if it hands over the names of its players?
RB: Yes, at least it is certainly possible. They are misbehaving and bringing their club and institution into disrepute.
Apart from your meeting with the RFC president, have you met with the rest of the rugby club?
RB: Andy asked for that and we have certainly offered it. The open letter is addressed to all the members of the club, so we have had communication with more people than Andy.
Who was involved in making the decision?
RB: The Management Committee of the Union received the complaints and decided they should be investigated. The Management Committee is comprised of the four full-time officers and the Chief Executive, with advice from our Sports Clubs Coordinator. The people that went away and dealt with it were our Sports Clubs Coordinator Ian Welch, the Assistant Director of Sport for Student Sport from the University, Rachel Tomes, Derek [Bowden], our Chief Executive, and I. It was all the people that are responsible for the reputation of the Union and the University in regards to sport, and responsible for the running of sport at UEA.
Students are wondering whether it is fair to ban sporting events because of a social issue. How would you respond to this?
RB: First of all, I think that the sporting events are as much of an issue because even if you are drinking on a coach on the way back from a sporting event, it is still a sporting event. Regardless, these complaints have come from Derby Day and a BUCS match, which are actually sporting events. The RFC have also missed fixtures they have signed up to, which was something they promised to do this year. I see it as a combined issue, as a club is not just about sport. It is about the experience and activity that every student gets.
Do you currently have a code of conduct for sports club behaviour on trips?
RB: Clubs do have to subscribe to all of the Union’s rules and policies, and the RFC has clearly broken them. Ian [Welch] and Rachel [Tomes] both meet with the presidents and as many of the committee members as possible of each club, each year, to talk about the responsibilities of the committee. They do also talk about the fact that you have to stick to Union rules, guidelines and policies, including the rules on irresponsible drinking initiations. They do spell it out quite clearly and people sign to say they have been to those meetings. In any case, some of the things here are pretty common sense. If you’re a decent person, you shouldn’t be doing it anyway.
TR: With these complaints, if they hadn’t been students and came to us, they would have called the police. They chose to contact us and the University because they see those people as members of the University and representatives of the University. I think if it was a night out in Norwich and they weren’t identifiable as the rugby team, the perpetrator would be an individual and there is nothing we can do about that. However, if they are wearing our kit or are clearly identifiable, we are responsible.
If the ban is implemented, how will the Union protect rugby playing at the University?
RB: The Union and the department of sport have already committed to providing something. The initial thoughts were an intramural 7’s tournament, a bit like the 5 a-side leagues that are played at the Sportspark all the time. We have spoken to the RFU and they would help, support and effectively manage parts of that, so there would still be high level, managed sport going on at UEA. There should be a provision of sport and there should be the provision of as many sports as people want to do.
Next year, do you think the culture in the rugby club will change because of the ban?
RB: The first thing I believe about almost all of the students that play sport at UEA is that they do love playing their sport. The fact that that has been taken away from them is a very big wake-up call that they can’t do things that are wrong, illegal or against the rules of the Union. I think from my perspective that’s a very positive wake-up call for a club that has had quite a few issues traditionally.
TR: If people want to be idiots then they are going to be idiots, that’s fine. It is just the case we [the Union] have to remove ourselves from it. To a certain extent, there will always be that sporting culture and it is about the boundaries of acceptability. We have tried so much to make clear what is and is not acceptable over the past few years so that ultimately we hope that next year people will think: “I should not be an idiot because I want to have a club to play in”.
RB: To clarify, the Union taking its name off it doesn’t mean we are trying to remove responsibility for making the club better. We are trying to make it better and the end goal is to have a significantly better rugby club, not just in performance, but in terms of culture and inclusivity. We have people every year saying “I would have gone along if it wasn’t for initiations”. That’s absolutely the sort of thing we want to avoid. The end goal is for the Union, the RFU and the Sportspark to create a better rugby cub and a better culture of rugby here at UEA.
Do you think you could have done something to stop this from escalating sooner?
RB: I can only judge from the last year and eight months. The talks we have always had have centred around being as progressive and fair we could have been. For example, last year with the damage to the Maids Head Hotel, which was covered in Concrete, they paid back the money out of their own money and not out of subs. However, the proportional response over 5 years hasn’t worked and we have tried to be very fair. I think in our response we have tried to be positive about it and asked them to bring in processes for managing themselves. For example, last year they undertook not to drink after the most recent Christmas dinner. Things have been dealt with on a case by case basis without looking at the overall cultural picture.
Will you change your approach to other clubs that seem to be on a similar trajectory?
RB: I think we have to look very carefully at it. We have a constitutional review coming up and we will have a clear and open disciplinary procedure in the constitution for the future. We spend a lot of money on running clubs and societies because we believe they are incredibly beneficial to our members, but there are certain standards of acceptability and behaviour that we expect from our clubs and societies, because that’s what they are. I think actually 95% of clubs and societies will be sitting there breathing a sigh of relief and realising that all the time they were behaving was worth it.
Any final thoughts?
RB: We are confident that we have got both the support of the University and the RFU. I want to make it clear that there has been a very clear and open way that the rugby club can appeal the ban. We haven’t made a decision and shut the door on it. It was in the open letter that there is an appeal process. I want to make it absolutely clear that they are complaints not allegations. We are dealing with very serious things that have been quite clearly made out to us.
TR: I’m glad to represent an organisation that takes such a serious stance. People are annoyed, but I would much rather be on the side of the person who was antagonised and had racist or sexist comments made to them than the other side. I feel relatively justified in the action we have taken.