… class is permanent. This is a familiar sporting cliché and, of course, the class it refers to is not social class, yet it could easily do so.
Social class is the great unmentionable in British sport, yet it is a vital feature in the way that sport is played and watched. One of the noticeable traits of today is that the response of the football authorities to the crisis points of the 1980’s, the Bradford fire, Heysel and Hillsborough, has been to gentrify the watching of the game through spiralling admission costs in all-seater stadia. Not only that, but there are two tiers of supporters in the ground, the shockingly disinterested corporate guest (the banks of empty seats in sell-out games at the new Wembley Stadium is a bugbear of mine), and the older, quieter and more affluent supporter in the ordinary seats, without the prime view of the corporate hospitality areas. Where has the boisterous working class audience gone? It is predominantly in the pubs where matches are screened, sometimes illegally from Scandinavian TV.
This is not a new phenomenon. In the week leading up to the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final at Wembley it is interesting to look back to one of the most blatant attempts to exclude the working classes from any sport; the one that led to the split of Rugby Football into two games, Union and League. I have been reading Tony Collins’ book, The Great Split: Class Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football, it is a fine piece of social history and he makes it clear that the divide between the two codes did not occur over the overt issue of professionalism but was the result of an attempt to exclude the working classes from their favourite sport and return it to its public school origins.
In the North of England, Rugby was far more popular than Association Football (soccer), and initially the spreading of the game amongst the working classes was seen as a boon, developing ‘manly’ and military virtues amongst the unruly. It always cheers me up that any such programme of middle class reform is usually doomed to failure. The new popularity of Rugby Football did not ‘civilise’ the working classes, but proletarianise the game. My favourite example taken from the book is of one of the leading clubs of the era, Leeds Parish Church. Its origin was in the attempted evangelical promotion of muscular Christianity amongst the masses. The result was somewhat different. As a successful club, it drew big crowds that had a reputation for being the most violent in the country, the team was noted for its foul play, and a large section of its support was actually Jewish, drawn from the nearby Jewish working class community.
Working class culture also brought with it the demand for professionalism against the wishes of the amateur guardians of the game. In reality, players were paid by subterfuge but the split occurred after the Rugby Football Union tried to put forward a new code on amateurism that would effectively drive the working class player out of the game. This was down to both a cultural hostility and to the simple fact that working class players were better and that they were coming to dominate the upper echelons of the sport. The issue that precipitated the break up was the famous ‘broken time payments’. This was actually an attempt to preserve amateurism by placing working class and middle class playing expenses on the same basis. The elite Southern clubs paid their players generous expenses but did not compensate lost wages for time taken out of work to play Rugby. That is because they did not lose any. Working class players did, and the loss was crucial. The defeat of the proposal to allow compensation for lost pay led to the 1895 breakaway and the formation of the Northern Union. The working class clubs had been driven out.
The reason for the regional bias of the new Union is that it was in the North that the working classes dominated the game. Though this was also true of Wales, it held to the establishment as a judicious blind eye was turned to illegal payments and their best players had an escape valve; they had often moved North for more money anyway. The response of the Rugby Union to the clubs they had driven out was a visceral hatred, one that was maintained for over one hundred years until Union embraced open professionalism. Any contact with the Northern Union game, or, as it was to be later called, Rugby League was punishable with a life ban. It was a disgraceful episode in sport and a form of institutionalised class hostility.
Once the split had occurred, middle class support and wealthy sponsors withdrew. Leeds Parish Church was simply closed down by a new Scottish and Rugby Union loving curate. As that happened, the sport became increasingly isolated and self-reliant, and overwhelmingly working class in all its aspects. The divide also opened the door to the growth and current dominance of a genuinely national professional sport, soccer, forcing a response. This took the form of a series of rule changes, most notably reducing the teams to thirteen a side and the introduction of the ‘play-the-ball’. These opened up the game and the experimentation has continued, most recently with League’s conversion from a winter to a summer sport, making it a compelling spectacle. The game spread to New Zealand, Australia and France where similar battles with Union occurred.
Two different games had now emerged, with different rules and styles of play. One was rooted in snobbery (latterly more prominent amongst administrators than players) and a dishonest amateurism that hid payments (Rugby League fans often scoffed that the difference in earnings between League and Union players was that the former paid tax and the latter did not). The other was based on a sense of social justice, class solidarity, and a self-righteousness born from the real persecution it faced. The apogee of this harassment was reached during the Nazi occupation of France when the collaborationist Vichy regime made Rugby League illegal. Now the barriers between the two codes are down, though the legacy remains. Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the fact that a French team is contesting the Challenge Cup Final this weekend, the first signs that the Vichy inheritance is faltering.
Those of us who watch Rugby League are prone to call it ‘The Greatest Game’. In doing so, we are not just extolling the courage, skill and excitement on the pitch but the sense of social justice, which was the reason the sport came into existence in the first place. Let’s hope its unique ethos can survive and prosper.