One chilly afternoon in late November 2014, a few dozen students at the University of Mary Washington gathered in a house about a half mile off their Fredericksburg, Virginia, campus for a party at a house rented by rugby players. For a Sunday, the mood was raucous, with students belting bar chants in celebration of a recent victory. Then, as the singing escalated in enthusiasm and obscenity, one party attendee surreptitiously took his cell phone out of his pocket and began recording.
The video didn't capture any faces; its camera remained fixed on a coat for the duration of the recording. Audio of the incident, obtained by Jezebel, captures raspy, jubilant male voices, occasionally buttressed by female laughter.
The lyrics included the following:
Finally found a whore (Finally found a whore!)
She was right and dead. (She was right and dead!)
Well god damn son of a bitch we're gonna get it in! (God damn son of a bitch we're gonna get it in!)
Finally got it in (Finally got it in!)
Wiggle it all about (Wiggle it all about!)
God damn son of a bitch I couldn't get it out (God damn son of a bitch we couldn't get it out!)
Finally got it out (Finally got it out!)
It was red and sore (It was red and sore!)
Moral of the story is never fuck a whore!
The student, disturbed by lyrics referencing necrophilia, rape, and violence against women, posted his clip to YouTube and reported it to the school's administration days later, which triggered disciplinary proceedings against the team. On Wednesday, March 18, four months after the incident, the administration handed down a decisive verdict: the entire men's rugby team would be dissolved indefinitely, and all 46 members of UMW's Mother's Rugby would be required to attend sexual assault training classes. (At UMW, rugby is a club sport and is therefore not subjected to NCAA sanctions.) The administration has told Jezebel that this is the last they will comment on the matter. Like any college administration facing potential embarrassment, they would like it to be over, and for the student body—which is about two-thirds female—to move forward.
Of course, the real story of what happened that night in November and in the months after is more complicated than the administration's delayed but clearly statement-making decision would have you believe. This wasn't a victory over the dark forces of misogyny as much as it was a parody-defying collision of 2015 collegiate caricatures: a feminist organization feeling threatened by a song sung at a party to which they were not invited and would have no interest in attending; a party full of co-eds getting drunk and yelling a stupid, obscene song about sexually violating a prostitute's corpse. A surreptitious cell phone recorder uploading the footage to YouTube like a guerrilla journalist. A terrified college administration cloaking their fear of lawsuits and negative media attention in righteously angry talk and scorched-earth justice aimed, probably, at the wrong entity. Coaches and faculty communicating with the media and with the administration, but not with each other. A bizarre amount of diplomatic posturing. Yik Yak.
Mary Washington's still-unfolding rugby team debacle is the latest messy clash between free speech and moral decency, fueled by the recent anti-sex assault push on college campuses that has been years in the making. It's not the first, and it won't be the last. But it makes for an informative look at the modern campus mini-crisis, now often centered around a piece of offensive media that gets released.
When I reached Paige McKinsey, President of UMW's Feminists United on Campus (FUC), she'd just returned from an afternoon at the White House; the club had been invited as part of the President's commemoration of Women's History Month. McKinsey wasn't at the party on the night of the November incident, and she says she doesn't socialize with rugby players. But she did see and hear the recording, which was taken by her friend, shortly after it was captured, and she encouraged her friend to report the video's contents to administration.
Once the school began disciplinary proceedings against the rugby team, McKinsey and the rest of the members of FUC met separately with the administration and were assured that the incident was being taken seriously and would be handled to their satisfaction. After that, FUC members found themselves scapegoated by their fellow students at the small university. Messaging app Yik Yak, which allows college students to relay their mental flotsam to the entire student body anonymously, filled with hostile messages. McKinsey says there were "hundreds" of Yaks, all of them of a similar tone:
Weeks passed, and nothing, from McKinsey's perspective, was getting done to eliminate what she characterized as a song that perpetuated rape culture in a way that made the entire campus feel unsafe. She felt she'd done her part by meeting with the school's Title IX coordinator and administrators, and in response, she'd found herself demonized on social media. In January, increasingly frustrated, she published an op-ed in the student newspaper, The Blue & Gray Press, entitled "Why UMW Is Not a Feminist-Friendly Campus." Her piece alluded to the rugby incident and included a quote from a psychology professor, Dr. Chris Kilmartin:
It came to our attention at the end of last semester that the men's rugby team performed a chant one night at a party. The chant discussed violence against women, including murder and battery, sexual violence against women, including assault, necrophilia and rape, and used derogatory words to describe the women in the chant. I would ask the members of Mother's Rugby to consider the words of Dr. Chris Kilmartin, a professor in our psychology department: "Although the vast majority of the men are not sexual predators, their participation in these chants provide support for the sexually aggressive men who were present. We should ask ourselves if we would be so comfortable if the chants were racist in nature. Sexism is still an acceptable social activity in many sectors of society, and it has got to stop."
McKinsey says that the comments on her piece "blew up" so dramatically that it had to be shut down, but the 73 comments on the Blue & Gray's website didn't seem much out of the ordinary. Then again, as a Woman on the Internet, I'm used to being called a fascist, or worse—and, as somebody who left college long before rumors could spring unbidden from student fingertips, it's easy to pretend that being swept up in something like this wouldn't be rattling. In the insular world of a college campus, being the target of anonymous and constant derision—or having your justice-centered college organization labeled a hate group—can feel incredibly unsafe.
Although FUC and the men's rugby team were pitted against each other, the two groups never met formally and continued to have little contact until February 20, when McKinsey says that the president of the rugby club and several of his teammates approached her in the dining hall. Paige says that the president extended his hand to her and said, "We're open to chat whenever you want to." She responded that she wasn't interested in meeting, and the men left.
She later reported the incident to Lisa Cox, the school's Title IX coordinator.
"An entire group of men approached me," she says now. "It made me feel very unsafe."
When the administration still had not exacted punishment by early March, FUC began a campaign to nudge them into action. Rumors about the incident, the team's response, and the administration continued to circulate. One UMW professor told Jezebel that she'd heard that the team had been on the cusp of being disciplined before appealing at the last minute and canceling scheduled sexual assault training with the psychology professor, Dr. Kilmartin. Another individual close to the disciplinary process said that the team had fought "tooth and nail" against their original punishment (a 12-month probationary period and anti-sex assault education sessions), and that the program's coaches were uncooperative.
On March 9, FUC members and concerned faculty and alumni released a transcript of the rugby team chant. On the morning of March 18, Jezebel and several other news organizations received the audio file. That afternoon, University President Richard V. Hurley sent a cryptic message to students and staff:
Sadly, I am aware of recent situations in which our own students (groups and individuals) have engaged in behaviors that I find repugnant and highly offensive to members of our community. While I am disheartened by the poor choices of some, I am renewed with the fervor to take action to ensure accountability that will help to bring about change in our culture. I have worked directly with our administrative team to enforce our policies and, more importantly, to uphold our community values. While the outcomes may be painful for some, the message to all is clear: At UMW, we have a right and responsibility to take appropriate action to address unacceptable behaviors.
An hour later, Hurley informed the team of their punishment: they were assigned mandatory sexual assault education, and the entire club was disbanded indefinitely. Then came the tough-talk statement, which Marty Morrison, UMW's Director of Media and Public Relations (whom I'd hours earlier contacted about a FOIA) forwarded to me, and a follow-up email from President Hurley's email address ("Sent from my iPhone!") that encouraged me to read the statement I'd just been sent by Morrison. In years of reporting on college disciplinary proceedings, this is the first time an administrator has ever responded to me directly. Hurley's statement reads:
At an off-campus party at the close of the fall 2014 semester, several members of the UMW men's rugby club engaged in a chant that contained sexually explicit, derogatory, and violent language. Some students have now been exposed to those offensive and lurid lyrics due to posting by others on social media.
No student on this campus should feel unsafe, ostracized, or threatened. Understanding that the offensive chant is antithetical to UMW values, and will not be tolerated, the University pursued action against the men's rugby club. At the beginning of the current semester, sanctions were imposed on the rugby club for willful violations of UMW's code of conduct for club sports.
After an appeal by the accused, the disciplinary process concluded on March 18 with this ruling: All rugby club activities have been suspended indefinitely. Further, each member of the men's rugby club is required to participate in education and training sessions regarding sexual assault and violence. UMW's Statement of Community Values informed the process and response to this situation.
As I stated yesterday, the University will not stand for such behavior. It not only violates our community values, it is not how members of this collegial campus live, and it is not reflective of the Mary Washington we all know and love.
University policies prohibit discrimination, harassment, threats, and derogatory statements of any form. We pride ourselves on being a diverse, accepting, caring community, and we must live up to that ideal.
I urge anyone on campus who feels unsafe, ostracized or threatened to immediately contact campus police or Dr. Leah Cox, Special Assistant to thePresident for Diversity and Inclusion. She may be reached at email@example.com or 540-654-2119.
Richard V. Hurley
Either Hurley means business, or Hurley's serious about making an example of the rugby team—no matter their actual level of involvement in the incident in question.
It's tempting to lump Mary Washington in with other recent incidents of college misbehavior: members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of the SAE fraternity gleefully chanting the N-word on a charter bus, or the UVA rape debacle of this past fall. But there are some key differences, some blurred-over facts.
First, while several students and faculty members who spoke with me stated that the house hosting the party was a "men's rugby house," multiple sources close to the team tell Jezebel that the house—located about half a mile from campus—is leased by two rugby players and a third female roommate who is not on the team. The November party was not an official team function, and only one of the rugby team members who is actually on the lease was in attendance. Furthermore, school administrators and sources close to the team agree that of the 46 players on the team, only eight were present at the house party on the night of the recording; the other 38 were in Maryland for a game, according to two individuals affiliated with the program. A source estimates that of the dozens of students in attendance at the party, some were varsity athletes who play non-club, NCAA sports at UMW. Many were women. (Representatives of the women's rugby team declined to comment on their attendance at the party, or their involvement in this or similar incidents.)
Team sources also insist that the club's leadership was made aware of the recording's existence on December 1, and that officers responded swiftly to the charges. At that time, the following letter was sent by a senior team member to the university administration, shortly after the charges came to light and before they knew hard numbers of who was at the party.
I know that my teammates sincerely regret that this incident took place, and that they had no desire to offend or denigrate anyone, despite how the song sounds. I know that as a longstanding member of this club, this kind of conduct does not reflect our usual behavior in any way. I have spoken with the members present at the party and to the best of my knowledge there were about nine female and four male varsity athletes, six female and two male club athletes, ten male rugby players, and ten female and six male non-sport affiliated students so I would not consider this a rugby party, as more of the team would have been there if it were. As far as the singing is concerned, I am told about eight to rugby players participated and about twenty other students including both men and women participated in singing the songs in question.
I think it is worth noting that we have 47 members in our club and only ten of those were in attendance and not even all of those members were participating in the singing the songs in question. I am not arguing that this excuses us from our actions, but this certainly does not reflect how we behave as a rugby team, or even as individuals. That being said, I also don't believe that anyone intended harm or offense through singing. I think it is safe to consider this an isolated incident and that our club will not tolerate behavior of this kind or similar in the future by our members in any venue-as a group or individually.
We have already met as a team and discussed the events amongst ourselves. The leaders in our club made it very clear that this is not the kind of behavior or singing we want associated with our team or the University. It was also expressed that this is not the kind of behavior or singing our team has exhibited in the past and we are going to insure it never happens in the future.
The team member behind the letter, who spoke with Jezebel on the condition of anonymity, further detailed internal changes the team made after the recording's release. Mother's Rugby would get more serious, they'd decided, paring out men who used rugby as an excuse to party and cracking down on practice attendance. Some members of the team voluntarily dropped out.
Though the team sources I spoke with indicated they were able, by a process of elimination, to determine who was singing the song and who was at the party that night, they wouldn't specify if any individuals had been disciplined.
The rugby player behind the letter further clarified that the team didn't appeal their punishment because they were against being punished wholesale. Rather, the team didn't find a 12-month probationary period appropriate, because they didn't think it was fair to punish incoming freshmen for the sins of their elders. They also took issue with the fact that their sexual assault training was to be conducted by Dr. Kilmartin, the faculty member quoted in McKinsey's op-ed saying that "not all" men were sexual predators. The quote's implication that some men are sexual predators (perhaps some rugby players!) indicated that Kilmartin's training would be, in the words of the team member, "a hostile environment."
Dr. Kilmartin, who has worked extensively with the U.S. military on anti-sexual assault efforts, told me he had looked forward to meeting with the rugby team. He'd even discussed the incident in his section of The Psychology of Men course (of the 25 class members, 24 are women, and the single man in class happened to play on the rugby team). He says his scheduled meeting with the rugby coaching staff was cancelled at the last minute. "I've let the administrators know that I'll do training for them if they want," he said.
Dr. Kilmartin and rugby team leadership have not yet met in person, but the professor reported that recently, he saw what he thought was a rugby team demonstration. "Five men [were] tossing a rugby ball around right in the middle of campus," he said. "I wondered if this was their form of protest. They weren't yelling, they didn't have any signs, but they were throwing a rugby ball around. I've never seen a rugby ball on campus before."
Tossing a ball around on the quad is not a form of protest I'm familiar with, but then again, I'm not a college student in 2015.
Of course, the lyrics that launched a thousand Yik Yaks don't belong to UMW's Mother's Rugby. The chant is an amalgam of several "pub" songs that have been passed along from teammate to teammate, team to team, college to college. The bit about having sex with a dead prostitute and catching an STD is from a song called "Walking Down Canal Street." Rugby players of various ages, genders, sexual orientations, and geographic locations have relayed to me other team songs that take sophomoric obscenity even further: There's one about Jesus being bad at rugby because he has holes in his hands and he's dead. There's also "I Used to Work In Chicago," a chant about being fired from a job over being an insatiable sexual deviant (for example: "A board she wanted, nailed she got"). Here's a recording of a different rugby team singing that song, similar, in its sexually violent tone, to the chant that got Mother's Rugby in trouble.
Like the frat cheers that get drunk 18-year-old bros suspended, rugby songs are often violent and sexual in nature. But the dozen male and female rugby players I've spoken with didn't feel like they were—to use that rather collegiate term—problematic. One former rugby player at a large public university explained that the songs were "purely silly." She went on:
We had a pretty diverse team racially/sexually, and everyone sang them. If people made you drink because you messed up a lyric, you felt more like you fit in or were accepted. We were playing a sport that's one of the few that has nothing to do with finesse or attractiveness, and there was a sense of just wanting to be as hard as motherfuckers and tough and playing through insane injury and singing stupid songs while drunk. In a related note, we were idiots.
When I raised this issue with Dr. Kilmartin, he responded, "Well if it's rugby culture, it's gotta change. Because it's destructive and it's not keeping in line with our values." Kilmartin further pointed out that the sort of misogyny on display in the chant is somehow more socially tolerated than bigotry against other groups. "I wonder if the songs had been racist instead of sexist if the response would have been swifter," he added.
It's true, at least, that songs celebrating outright racism are rarer than music laced with misogyny, which hardly starts or ends at the University of Mary Washington, or with rugby teams, or with organized sports in general. When I was in college, Ludacris's "Hoes in Different Area Codes" was on heavy rotation, and Akinyele's "Put it In Your Mouth" would always inspire party sing-alongs, from men and women alike. Party song lyrics are as often as vile as the cheap vodka shots served up to accompany them. Could a student in attendance at a theoretical future party film revelers singing along with, say, Lil Wayne or Adam Levine, and then turn it into administration on the grounds that popular music makes them feel "unsafe"?
But, back to the dead whore getting cheerily fucked in a bar chant: The Mother's Rugby team has not expressly attempted to defend the song. The player who spoke to Jezebel insisted he was "ashamed and appalled" when he first read the transcript, and that violent songs aren't part of team culture, and that he'd never heard this song before.
When I asked him about the time several rugby team members intimidated Paige McKinsey in the dining hall, he said, "Our president was trying to open the conversation."
"There's no bad blood between us and the feminists, on our end," he added. "I consider myself a feminist."
As somebody a decade removed from a fairly conservative college experience, I was a little taken aback by the incredible institutional pomp surrounding this story. But to colleges operating in the current political climate, what Mary Washington's administration did makes a loopy sort of sense.
After decades of lackadaisical attention to sexual equality (and—to indulge my cynicism—with a very important election coming up in 2016), the Obama administration has cracked down on schools that run afoul of Title IX. The law has, to date, landed more than 90 American colleges and universities in hot water with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. While many of the complaints originated with colleges' mishandling of sexual assault cases, Title IX is much bigger than rape.
"If a school knows or reasonably should know about discrimination, harassment or violence that is creating a 'hostile environment' for any student," explains Know Your IX, "it must act to eliminate it, remedy the harm caused and prevent its recurrence." Title IX even applies to students who don't directly experience sexual harassment or discrimination.
As Judith Shulevitz writes in "In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas" in this Sunday's New York Times,
[Universities are] required by two civil-rights statutes, Title VII and Title IX, to ensure that their campuses don't create a "hostile environment" for women and other groups subject to harassment. However, universities are not supposed to go too far in suppressing free speech, either. If a university cancels a talk or punishes a professor and a lawsuit ensues, history suggests that the university will lose. But if officials don't censure or don't prevent speech that may inflict psychological damage on a member of a protected class, they risk fostering a hostile environment and prompting an investigation. As a result, students who say they feel unsafe are more likely to be heard than students who demand censorship on other grounds.
But in avoiding one kind of legal trouble, University of Mary Washington administrators may have gotten themselves in another. Rugby chants about sexually violating dead prostitutes likely aren't what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the Constitution, but the way the University of Mary Washington punished its rugby program for speech at an off-campus, private residence is the sort of thing that raises flags for organizations like The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
"The University of Mary Washington is a public institution and is therefore legally bound to respect the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty members," FIRE attorney Will Creeley told me last week. "Exceptions to the First Amendment are limited to a narrow subset of precisely defined categories, and the Supreme Court has made clear that there's no First Amendment exception for speech that is simply offensive, even if it repels many, most, or even all who encounter it."
Creeley further explained that not every instance of "speech" is protected for all classes of students. Student-athletes, for example, can be punished for yelling expletives at their coaches during practice or be held to a higher standard of behavior from non-athletes without having their free speech rights violated. "But discipline that goes beyond athletics—for example, a suspension from not just the team, but the school itself—would have to pass muster under the First Amendment at a public institution," added Creeley.
Certainly, nobody has a constitutional right to play for a rugby club in college and to be exempt from standards of behavior, and schools should be able to require athletes to act respectfully. A rugby team getting disbanded isn't the same thing as an SAE member getting kicked out of school for yelling the N-word. All of the school's punishments have been on the team without singling out individuals involved. But when I filled Creeley in on what details of the incident I knew—that it wasn't an official team event, that only eight members of the team were present, and that the audio couldn't establish who was and wasn't singing—he responded that he found the case "troubling."
In Fredericksburg, meanwhile, both the feminists keen to enact cultural change and the rugby players who insist theirs isn't a culture that needs changing continue to experience fallout from this week's events.
The social media deluge against McKinsey and her fellow club members continues. "As far as our group being ok I will say that this backlash has not stopped our group but it had made many members, myself included, deeply uncomfortable," she writes. "While no one to my knowledge had been physically harmed the psychological effect of these yaks and comments are troubling."
The rugby team, meanwhile, fears that this incident will stain the futures of individuals poised to graduate into the professional world. Two members of the team have received calls at work from individuals who sought to demonize them for the chant incident. Neither of them was at the party the night the recording was taken. One of the team's coaches has seemingly scrubbed his information from the web.
Dr. Kilmartin, reflecting on the disciplinary proceedings, says, "Am I satisfied? I'm not satisfied with the timing; it should have happened immediately. We have audio evidence of what was going on. And the other thing that could have happened immediately was 'Let's get together and solve this problem.'"
"This will be effective in starting a dialogue and starting a conversation," McKinsey said. When I asked her if anybody on the rugby team has made any attempts to make contact apart from the brief, weird exchange in the dining hall, she told me nobody had reached out, save for some talk she initiated about a "mediated meeting" between the team and FUC.
The rugby player said that while the team will gladly fulfill the education requirement put forth by the disciplinary committee, he was dismayed at the way things were handled by the administration. When I followed up with a team source I'd been communicating with all week for further comment on whether or not they'd tried to set up a meeting, a talk, anything with FUC, Dr. Kilmartin, or Paige McKinsey, the email bounced back.
In the hours of interviews I conducted with people on both "sides" of this cartoonish controversy this week, everybody—individually—told me that they were excited about starting a dialogue, or a conversation, or an exchange. But there's no exchange happening; to my knowledge, nobody has made sincere, non-window dressing attempts to meet with each other without the flinching presence of the administration. And the administration has taken such a hard stance that it can't really back down from without drawing more ire from the two parties.
Disbanding the rugby team hasn't changed the fact that the hostile reaction of a portion of the student body that has made students at the center of controversy feel like their safety is threatened. It hasn't unsung the song, it hasn't unshaken members of FUC, changed rugby culture, eliminated misogyny, or even punished the right people for their missteps. It hasn't united a campus that is, like many campuses, engulfed in an ideological tug-of-war between those who say they value tradition, those who say tradition victimizes them, and those who just happened to be at the party with eight members of the rugby team, laughing in the background of a song someone else was singing.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo via umw.edu.