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The recent media and political storm concerning NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem resurrects the single most controversial event in US rugby history: The South African tour of 1981. Then as now, divided attitudes collided head on in the arena of public opinion, debating whether sports and politic should mix.
Background – South African Apartheid
Most importantly, in the 1980s, South Africa continued its decades long apartheid repression of blacks, making it a pariah among the world’s nations. The International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from the summer Olympic Games, beginning in 1968. In 1976, twenty-six African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics, protesting prior rugby matches played between New Zealand and South Africa.
Springboks Tour New Zealand - 1981
In July 1981, New Zealand invited the Springboks to tour, a decision that stemmed from the New Zealand Rugby Union’s goal to provide the All Blacks with Test matches against an equally talented rugby opponent. When the event was announced, an outraged New Zealand public demanded its cancellation. But the Kiwi government’s position firmly held to “No politics in sports.”
The anti-tour movement organized protests throughout the country with some violent incidents and a pronounced police riot presence, a new phenomenon in that country. Fourteen of sixteen scheduled matches took place, including, three Test matches. The All Blacks triumphed, winning two games to one, the final a 25-22 slam bang victory in a game for the ages.
Springboks Invited to America
In the US, the All Blacks-Springboks rugby contest would have hardly appeared as a solitary AP or Reuters newspaper paragraph, had it not been for the announcement that that South Africa would play rugby on US soil. American print and broadcast media alerted the citizenry that the nation of repressive apartheid would play rugby in the “land of the free.”
Tom Selfridge, the President of the Eastern Rugby Union, invited the Springboks to stop in the USA and play the ERU, probably, in New York City. Then the Midwest RFU organized a second match, and, finally, the USARFU offered a game against the Eagles. For the rugby community, the matches were perceived as being just sports events without any political statement, a naïve belief not rooted in reality. Opponents to the tour formed SART (Stop the South African Tour), and soon personalities, including the Mayor of New York City, the Governor of New York, Ted Koppel of ABC's “Nightline” program, and, eventually, Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Judge, became involved.
But all protests to halt the playing of the three games came to naught as the Supreme Court ruled that the contests – even if played in a public facility – were upheld by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing free speech and free assembly.
The venue for the Eagles’ game in upstate New York was kept secret to prohibit protestors. It was played in a downpour with thirty-people watching, the all-time, least attended Test Match in world history.
Rugby Magazine Editor Ed Hagerty summed up the crux of the conflict, “The Eagles had a right to play, and those in opposition, had a right to protest.”
Then, as now, the constitution prevailed.