In principle, the idea of Varsity seems like a fantastic event; collaboration on such a scale with our neighbours down the hill is a rare occurrence and it’s a great opportunity for student sports clubs and athletes to showcase their talent and make less sporty students proud. In fact it seems impossible to deny that the event isn’t a complete success with over 10,000 eager spectators watching the final showdown despite rain year on year. But the event still leaves me and many other students feeling more than a little uneasy: an undercurrent of nasty classism and vindictive sexism jubilantly underlines the event both in and out of the stadium, undermining the players and our university. It’s an issue we cannot ignore or sweep under the carpet any longer.
Although access to higher education has increased impressively over the last few years, it’s futile to argue that the class divide no longer exists and that your family’s income and background isn’t a huge deciding factor in your chances of even applying to university. Damaging Tory rhetoric over ‘scroungers’ and ‘shirkers’ and the government’s reckless changes to the benefits system also means that class and depictions of people on lower incomes is still a serious issue in the country today. In light of this, I simply can’t ignore the chants of “we pay your benefits”, “your dad works for my dad” and “what’s that coming over the hill? It’s unemployment!” which students chant with jingoistic enthusiasm at the Leeds Met stands and triumphantly tweet with the compulsory hashtag #UNAAAY. Firstly, it seems pertinent to point out that the stereotypical class divide between Met and uni barely even exists, with students of all backgrounds attending both universities, although frankly the responses from Met of snobbish elitism are not unfounded when faced with the uni chants. Some may insist that it’s all just friendly banter on the day, and that anyone who disagrees is an overly sensitive killjoy, but I struggle to see how these irrefutably elitist jeers are in any way friendly. Competition and rivalry isn’t inherently bad, but comments on the intelligence and background of rugby players just isn’t relevant and aren’t even funny.
But why stop at classism when you can chuck in a bit of misogyny too? Intersectional insults unfortunately also feature in the Varsity repertoire. Chants such as “you’re thick, you’re poor, your mum’s a f**king whore” and the retaliatory “they’re sluts, they’re scum, they’re full of Leeds Met cum” are so offensive I don’t quite know where to begin. But I’ll break it down a little anyway because they’re a perfect example of our culture’s perverse sexism. Unfortunately it’s am age old tactic, attempting to insult your rivals by slut shaming, holding imaginary, stereotypical women to a ‘higher’ moral standard and reducing them to their relationship to men. This accompanied by uni mascots gyrating against Met cheerleaders makes me question how women, and particularly sportswomen, were represented in the Varsity finale. It happened at the Olympics too, where it’s tradition to award the male marathon runners with their medals among the glory and pomp of the closing ceremony while the women stand aside. Coverage and acceptance of women’s sport is slowly edging into the mainstream, but why aren’t they ever given a chance to fight for the glory in the final showdown? As long as the male team retains the final match, women’s inclusion seems little more than a gesture.
Surely the irony of people claiming higher intelligence and displaying enough ignorance to call others “primates” and “scum” isn’t lost on everyone else? Although Varsity is a wonderful event in many respects, and something the competitors and organisers should be lauded for, it undermines their achievements and alienates students from both universities when we display such ignorance and prejudices and pretend they’re just ‘a harmless joke’.
Photo: Leo Garbutt