If you walked up to a man in the street and grabbed him by the balls, chances are you’d be heading to the police station to face a sexual assault charge – if you survived getting punched out, that is. But do it on the rugby field and you’ll merely get a telling off by the referee, it seems. Last Saturday, as the Springboks battled against the Samoans at Loftus in Pretoria, Bok hooker Adriaan Strauss was on the receiving end of the grip of Samoan fullback James So’oialo. As So’oialo slipped his arms between the legs of Strauss, who was trapped in a ruck, a grin seemed to spread across his face. In plain sight of the television cameras, he manoeuvred his hand into position and then clamped down on Strauss’ balls, while Strauss himself was concerned with chasing a larger, oval ball. Strauss obviously didn’t take too kindly to the tug on his testicles and came up swinging wildly. So’oialo, lucky to avoid the swinging punches and realising that Strauss was about to clobber him, bid a hasty retreat, only for Strauss to chase after him muttering a number of expletives. The referee had to intervene and the incident was eventually sent up to the television replay adjudicator. But although the adjudicator told the referee that So’oialo had touched the player “in an indecent manner”, he received no card but just a warning. Sexual assault off the field, but just part of the game on it?

Click here to watch a video of the incident

The ball grab generated quite a lot of chatter on Twitter at the time. Rugby writer Simon Borchardt asked, “Surely grabbing a player’s balls warrants a yellow card?” Rugby commentator Tank Lanning tweeted via his account Front Row Grunt, “Lock him up and throw away the key”. Controversial rugby journalist Mark Keohane also weighed in: “Strauss got his balls given a good working over … that was pretty disgusting”. Later the jokes started to fly, with references to “balls of steel” and “playing his balls off”, and someone even coined a new nickname for Strauss, calling him “Chutney Strauss AKA Mrs Balls”.

So’oialo was cited for the incident and appeared before a disciplinary hearing on Sunday June 23. So’oialo was charged under law 10.4 of the sport of rugby – committing an act that is contrary to good sportsmanship. It is interesting that this is the law that So’oialo allegedly contravened, which suggests that the laws of the game probably have no reference to sexual assault. I know for a fact that if some guy grabbed my balls in the street, I wouldn’t be accusing him of poor sportsmanship. But So’oialo was cleared of any wrongdoing. Judge Jeff Blackett decided the contact was “accidental”. Blackett said: “If I am to uphold this citing, I must conclude that the player has lied to me.  My assessment of the player is that he is honest: he immediately accepted that he had grabbed an opponent’s testicles – he did not attempt to dispute the fact – and he said that there is no room in the game for insidious acts.” Imagine if other cases of sexual assault were judged in the same way.

Judge: Did you do it?

Accused: No, Sir.

Judge: Oh, well you seem like an honest enough guy, I’ll let you off.

However, this incident raises the prospect of the homoerotic nature of rugby. As a rugby player myself at school, I can’t say I was into the bum slapping, naked team showers and macho behavior in the changing rooms. It always felt rather uncomfortable when men who would punch you out for calling them gay, jostle naked with each other in the showers. But hey, whatever floats their boat. Who can forget the infamous Kamp Staaldraad, when then Springbok coach Rudolph Straeuli thought it would be great preparation for the 2003 Rugby World Cup to get the national team naked together in a freezing cold dam.

A lot of these incidents in South African sport spring from the heart of the country’s schooling system. Initiation of junior players is a common thing in South African school sport, with many being subjected to humiliating practices by senior players that involve beatings, having one’s ball hairs and eyebrows shaved off or the application of Deep Heat to the testicles. These practices could end up with the senior schoolboys being taken to court, but South Africa’s schools try to cover up this behavior, seeing it as harmless fun. In May this year, seven pupils from the York High School in George were suspended after a young learner was initiated and ended up in intensive care. Over the last few years, South African newspapers have reported numerous cases of young boys being forced to watch pornography together while they all masturbated in a room, while others were forced to give each other blowjobs. In one case, a young boy was sodomised with a broom handle and a banana while on rugby tour – that was after he had his eyebrows shaved off and toothpaste shoved up his nose. Some of these victims have been forced to leave the schools and see psychologists because of the trauma resulting from the sexual assault they received.

Let’s face the facts – these practices of initiation are bullying and it’s clear that sometimes they are outright sexual assault. When I was a waterpolo player in high school, I was initiated by the senior players as a way of welcoming me in to the team. This was openly acknowledged by the coaches of the team, who were teachers at the school, to the point that the teachers joked with the younger players about their initiation the previous day and what had been done to them. Similar practices have been reported to occur in the South African army, when young men were forced to do military training, which goes to show how embedded in South African male culture some of the practices are. Is it any wonder, then, that these practices are still perpetuated in South African sport? When these tendencies spill out of the changing room and on to the sporting field, should we be shocked? Should it be surprising that Strauss, who was prepared to clobber So’oialo on the field, testified before the hearing that there was probably no malicious intent on behalf of the Samoan?

As I sat watching the Springboks play Samoa, I asked a friend who played school and club rugby for many years if he thought the Springbok players would talk about what just happened to Strauss or if it would just not be mentioned. He said that, in his experience, the whole thing would be turned into a joke, something along the lines of “Will someone get Adriaana a drink?” or that he would be called “meisiekind” for a while.

The incident reminded me of the story of John Hopoate, a fellow Polynesian islander from Tonga, who moved to Australia when he was very young. Hopoate eventually settled into a career in rugby league, but his career came crashing down in 2001. During a clash with the North Queensland Cowboys, Hopoate tried to give his team, the Wests Tigers, the edge by shoving his finger up three players anuses. When the match was done, these incidents were brought to the attention of the officials and a hearing into the matter took place. Hopoate claimed in front of the panel of judges that he was simply attempting to give all three players “a wedgie” with his fingers, denying he had done anything wrong and that he was “a great believer in what happens on the field should stay there”. Even if what happens on the field is sexual assault? That’s the question that needs to be asked. The three victims in the case, Cowboys players Glenn Morrison, Peter Jones and Paul Bowman, all disagreed with the reasoning put forward by Hopoate and his team. Jones stated: “It wasn’t a wedgie. That’s when your pants are pulled up your arse. I think I know the difference between a wedgie and someone sticking their finger up my bum,” while Bowman stated that he was “disgusted” and “couldn’t believe it”. Hopoate was subsequently charged with unlawful sexual connection in relation to the incident. He was suspended for 12 weeks and went on to continue to play rugby league, a sign of how seriously sports teams take sexual assault on the field. It is from this incident that the term “pulling a Hopoate” was birthed in Australian sport.

But making fun of the guy who thinks he is intimidating opposition players by shoving his finger up their anus is not going to rid sport of these practices. South Africa’s sporting teams and schools need to take a long, hard look at themselves and decide whether they will perpetuate this behaviour in future.A start would be to create laws that deal with sexual assault when it occurs on the field.

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3 Responses to “When Men Play With Balls: Sexual Assault, Initiation and the Homoerotic Nature of Male Sport”

  1. Simon
    June 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    This is a wonderful piece of writing. I don’t think the damage this initiation bullshit does to people is documented at all. I have existed in similar systems and know for a fact it is little more than institutionalised bullying, from which some people take years to recover, if that. Often the coaches etc were formerly a part of the team, school etc, which means they think that because they went through some sort of similar thing that everyone can manage it. It’s so hard to change institutional culture, but when boys and young men are being sexually assaulted with broom handles and pieces of fruit, and forced masturbation, there is criminality involved. If men were doing this to young women society would absolutely fuck out. Why on earth should it happen to young men, who, in many instances, are children? I really thought this was a superb examination of the subject.

  2. Lloyd Gedye
    Lloyd Gedye
    June 25, 2013 at 5:44 am #

    Thanks Simon, much appreciated

  3. blagrange
    June 26, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    under SA criminal law would police not be compelled to investigate if someone reported it as a sexual assault? you potentially had 1,000s of witnesses?