Aidan Smith: Will sportsman’s dinners be banished to the warehouses like dog-fighting?

Roger Baird in action for Kelso v Selkirk at the 1981 Melrose Sevens. The former Scotland cap is in hot water over an after-dinner speech. Picture: TSPL
Roger Baird in action for Kelso v Selkirk at the 1981 Melrose Sevens. The former Scotland cap is in hot water over an after-dinner speech. Picture: TSPL
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I Googled “sport” and “after-dinner” and “speech” the other day but not because I’m about to get on my feet. The world doesn’t need to hear about my muddy-field endeavours – lost every single game of P7 football, thrashed 88-0 at rugby by Fettes College. Honestly, no one’s interested in this.

No, I was wondering about the do’s and don’ts of post-scran nattering in a sporting context. The first do, according to many who profess wisdom, is “know your audience”. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? Taking the temperature of the room, scanning the audience – and indeed, well before the engagement, being clear in your mind about the type of event and the tone to be adopted.

I would guess, though, that this sort of “prep” hasn’t always been rigorously applied. Well, what’s been the need? You’re a sportsman, or you were.

A bit of a hero or a bit of a clown, it doesn’t matter. The audience will be sports fans. They will want to hear about your deeds, also your misdeeds. They will, by the time you’re introduced by the master-of-ceremonies, be merry on drink. And mostly they will be men.

Give ’em what they want. Tales from the scrum, the communal bath, the bonding night-out from before the introduction of poncey terms like bonding. Stories from way back, when the game was pretty much unregulated. Who was the funniest, the toughest, the greediest, the stupidest, the randiest? What did the prop-forward say to the princess, the winger to the actress, the goalie to the hotel manager? This is how these nights would go, when life was pretty much unregulated, too.

Political correctness didn’t really change things; sportsman’s dinners continued in their hilarious, often ribald, frequently near-the-knuckle way. They went unreported, save for the best, bawdiest and most outrageous jokes being re-told in clubhouses and bars afterwards. These weren’t private events but nor were they advertised beyond the membership of the host organisation. Everyone attending knew what to expect, and expected to hear it while knocking back their pints and their wine (sometimes pints of wine). And still the audiences were almost entirely male. But if, like in the movie Fight Club, the first rule of sportsman’s dinner club is that you don’t talk about sportsman’s dinner club – well, that’s changed. If the second rule of sportsman’s dinner club is that there are no rules, that’s changed, too.

Last month, Scotland rugby hero Roger Baird allegedly made sexist, homophobic and racist remarks at the 150th anniversary dinner of Glasgow University RFC, while the president, Bobby Low – a retired IVF expert – is supposed to have joked about the woman giving birth in a lesbian couple always being “the ugly one”.

Last week, comedian Nish Kumar, pictured, decided to get political at the charity Christmas lunch organised by the cricket fans who make up the Lord’s Taverners. On both occasions, the speeches were greeted with boos and bread rolls. Both events, and the outrage they caused, made the papers. And surely as a result, other after-dinner speakers, if they’re not already doing this, will be taking heed of Baird’s profuse apology, issued while Low resigned from the presidency: “My attempt at humour was clearly very ill-judged… it wasn’t my intention to upset or insult anyone and I regret misjudging the mood of the room.”

Read the room, know your audience. Baird’s audience included members of the university women’s team. Some took to Facebook to complain about his and Low’s remarks while the captain, Sophie Matthew, claimed that speeches at other functions which were “littered with offensive comments” had caused entire women’s teams to walk out in protest.

This is the era of #MeToo, social media and smartphones. Sexism – and all the other -isms – are seen and heard everywhere right now and they will be exposed. So it’s very easy to say that rugby cannot welcome women into its midst and continue in the bantery, blokey, unreconstructed manner of old. It’s simply paying lip-service to equality if the men still behave like this is 1973.

I have little sympathy for Kumar, who also failed to read the room. Or maybe he read it perfectly well, decided everyone in it would have voted Leave, and pressed on regardless. This was doomed to failure, of course, but he bit back at his detractors if not the hurtling buns. He viewed the lunch as being no different to a stand-up gig where heckling would be expected. He taunted the crowd, provoked them by playing the race card and suggested that if the Taverners were in receipt of more donations they might be able to afford a right-wing comic more to their liking. His ego wouldn’t let him back down.

But is it possible to have even a smidgin of sympathy for rugger-buggers struggling to make sense of a world currently spinning faster than a Finn Russell flip pass? This is a world where, just in the past few days, no lesser cultural titans than the Krankies have been required to deny claims they were forced out of panto by disapproval at the double-entendres which have propelled their careers through 152 years. A world where TV producers bringing back kids’ science show How! are unlikely to include the ‘Red Indian’ greeting from the 1960s original for fear it would be seen as “cultural appropriation”.

Rugby, played by men, is the most macho game around. It isn’t terribly snowflakey. Not everything can be packaged into neat, inclusivity-guaranteed boxes for the new decade. Can PC humour work? Is it not a contradiction in terms? Or do men’s and women’s teams have to host separate dinners?

Maybe the men will be forced underground, the black-tied participants huddling in abandoned warehouses like they’re at a dog-fight. It’s a minefield, so although no one will ever ask, I don’t think I’ll be speaking at a sportsman’s dinner any time soon. It’s just too risky. Mind you, if the fee was right, I could be persuaded to copy the example of racing driver Graham Hill, quite the suavest man to participate in any sport, who once rose to his feet, began “It gives me great pleasure… ”, and sat right back down again.