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LOS ANGELES Friday, November 27th 2015 8:10

This Column Might be Titled: I Went to a Rugby Game and a Neighborhood Council Meeting Broke Out

GELFAND’S WORLD-Back in 1976, the United States decided to get back into international competition in the sport of rugby. Maybe it's wrong to call rugby something so mundane as a sport, since it's sort of a combination of a street fight mixed with running the ball and getting tackled, plus other artful forms of head banging spread out over a hundred yard field. It's great fun to play and great fun to watch, and a couple of thousand of us who played at the club level made our way down to Anaheim to see the newly minted United States team, the Eagles, face Australia on an eventful afternoon 38 years ago. 

The game has grown enormously in America since then, with around a hundred thousand participants. This weekend here in LA, the US national team will play an international game against Japan. This is big time on the world stage, even if the vast majority of Americans are unaware of it. We also have the beginning of that other event, the World Cup, about which I offer a viewing tip down below. 

First, a little about rugby and what the Los Angeles spectator will get to see if you join me at the StubHub center in Carson on Saturday night.  Rugby is a game that requires the physical toughness of American football, combined with the kind of fitness required of the middle distance runner. It's the proverbial "most elemental of games," combining running the ball against tacklers, passing the ball laterally like an option quarterback, and being able to punt the ball from any spot on the field while in play. The skill set includes a lot of modern American football and a certain amount of soccer. What makes it interesting is that most of the players on the field are adept at all of these facets of the game. 

In short, it's the best game there is, if you don't mind the odd set of stitches through the eyebrow once in a while, or getting knocked cold every now and then. 

Oh yeah. One other thing. There are no protective pads like there are in American football. No helmets or shoulder pads or knee pads. It's you against the world with a mouth guard and your cleats. Bleacher Report writer Dmitriy Loselevich, trying to find an analogy for the American football fan, described the game as "a never-ending punt return, with laterals, and no pads." That's one way to describe it, but start out by pointing out that the team with the ball has a head start on the defense, and that play is continuous, even after the ball carrier gets tackled. 

Americans and people who write about American sports seem to obsess on the "no pads" aspect of rugby. The world's most popular sport, the one we call soccer, is also played without pads, and it is plenty dangerous when played at any level above the sandlot. 

The main difference between rugby as played in America and our version of football is psychological. There are a lot of rugby players in the United States who play the game, even after careers in college football, just because they love it. It's been building since the 1960s on this side of the Atlantic because it's fun, and because it does not require the huge expenses and organizational intensity of the American game. 

One little tidbit from American rugby history. The game of American football and the international game of rugby have a common ancestry. The game of American football began to diverge from rugby in the late 1800s, but the original game was still being played here at a pretty high level, particularly in northern California, well into the 1920s. 

In the two times that rugby was played as an Olympic sport, in 1920 and 1924, the Americans won the event. 

That's right -- the USA is the defending Olympic champion in the sport of rugby, going back to 1924. American athletics was moving along, into our version of contact football, and rugby declined as a spectator sport. You can recognize the commonality of the two games when you look at pictures of early day American football players. Their uniforms included only minimal head and shoulder protection, very different from the hard-shell battering rams adopted as the modern helmet and pads.


And then there's that other sport, the one we call soccer. The Italians call it calcio, and most of the rest of the world calls it by some variant of the word football or futbol. It's likely that by the time two teams get to the finals, there really will be somewhere around a billion people watching. It's whole countries competing against whole countries. Out of the entire continent of South America, there are two, maybe three teams that are competitive in the tournament as a whole. Europe will field a few more, and Africa has its own couple or three. In other words, the sheer mass of humanity contributing the best of its best, the most athletically talented of humanity, is itself mind boggling. 

For those of you who aren't into expensive cable sports packages or the limited selection provided by major network television, we have a special treat right here. Just tune into the Univision station (over the air channel 34.1 if you have it) and you will get the great mass of the games, presented without commercial interruption and -- let's be honest here -- without the emotionally dull English language commentary that we had to get used to the last time around.


And then there's that other most dangerous game, if only emotionally, the practice of going to the movies. But this week it's not your standard fare. It's the LA Film Fest.  The 11 o'clock news has already been covering the stars walking the red carpet and all that, but tickets are available to the public. I think the interesting part of this festival is the collection of short subjects. That's not to knock the feature length screenings, but watching a selection of shorts is sort of like going to the beach with a book of short stories. One may be terrific, and the next one merely pretty good, but if you don't like the film you are watching, you will get something different four minutes from now. 

You can go to the schedule on the website and click on the titles to get plot summaries. There seem to be a lot of coming of age stories selected by the festival jurors. There are also some fairly outrageous ideas, including one short film whose title I cannot even type here, this being a family friendly site (It's in the second collection of shorts, and the subject seems to be NSFW).


Addendum: In her current CityWatch ‘NC Watch’ column, my friend Denyse was kind enough to link to my previous column, although with a critical eye. I think we both agree that physical threats are not an appropriate part of the neighborhood council experience, anymore than they would be appropriate on the street or in the stands at a Dodger game. We also agree that the subject of bullying is something that we ought to be talking about. 

The issue, and perhaps the difference of opinion, seems to lie in where we draw the line on speech itself. How abusive does somebody have to be before we throw that person out of one of our meetings? Is there any kind of Constitutionally protected speech that neighborhood councils can try to prevent, and if so, why would we wish to do so? 

I actually think that the answer lies not in the question of what, but rather the question of when. As I explain to neighborhood council participants, under Roberts Rules they don't have to like each other or even respect each other, they just need to know when to shut up. And it's up to the chair or presiding officer to let them know when to shut up and thereby to keep the peace. 

That means making sure that people get to speak without interruption, even if it means threatening to have somebody thrown out of the meeting if the offender continues to interrupt. Over many years of participating in meetings and chairing quite a few, I've found that this is about all you really need to do. The chair needs to protect the rights of all participants, and when that happens, things go a lot more smoothly. I know it can be done because I've seen lots of good presiding officers do it, and I've done it myself. 

My analysis of neighborhood council problems is that they occur because participants don't trust the chair to protect their rights. Most don't even know that this is the first requirement of being a good presiding officer. That's why we see so many instances of spectators jumping into discussions with suggestions about how the meeting should be run -- it's because they sense that the meeting is not being run in a healthy way, and they are usually correct.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture, politics, and once in a while about sports, for City Watch. He can be reached at




Vol 12 Issue 48

Pub: June 13, 2014