RUGBY IN THE NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT: THE 1981 USA TOUR OF THE SPRINGBOKS
How a traveling national rugby team became a lightning rod for the policies of apartheid
By Chuck Miller
Originally published in Rugby Magazine, April 10, 1995
In the best of all possible worlds, rugby is a friendly competition between two teams. If that were so, then the only things noteworthy about the 1981 contest between the Eastern Rugby Union Colonials and South Africa might be the Springboks' 41-0 drubbing of the Americans and a thundering downpour that could have put Noah back in the cargo-hauling business.
Yet the contest on September 23, 1981 involved more than just the 30 men on the field. Others were in a battle royal over the playing of the game, including a former U.S. Eagle, a mayor who ran virtually unopposed for 40 years, a publicity-sensitive governor seeking reelection, the leader of an anti-racism organization, a United States Supreme Court justice, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and reporters from Albany to Johannesburg.
In 1980, Tom Selfridge was elected president of the Eastern Rugby Union, the largest of U.S. Rugby's four territorial unions. As a member of the U.S. National team, Selfridge played against the team from the Republic of South Africa in 1978. "When 1 was there with the Eagles," Selfridge said, "we played a game in one of the first fully integrated stadiums. People could sit wherever they wanted to. The particular rugby union we were playing against owned their own stadium and that board of directors chose to do that. I also had the opportunity to play a game against the first integrated South African team."
And after meeting with South African industrialist and former provincial player Louis Luyt in New York City, Selfridge convinced the Springboks to play some games in America during the 1981 world tour. After much wrangling, the Springboks agreed to a three-game series in late September - in Chicago, in New York City and in Albany.
Open an Albany newspaper in 1981 and the sports pages were filled with stories on major league baseball, high school and college sports, and a local semipro football team. Rugby coverage rarely garnered more than a small paragraph, right below bowling and bar league softball. And only those with excellent eyesight would have noticed an announcement that the Eastern Rugby Union would play the Springboks as part of the South African team's world tour.
Within days, people found out more about the team Selfridge was bringing to Albany, and they didn't like what they heard. The Springboks were the national team of South Africa, all right -
segregated South Africa. State-sanctioned racial separation called apartheid - where the black majority was ruled by the white minority - barred South Africa from Olympic and international competition. To some people, the Springboks' world tour made them ambassadors of apartheid. And if there was going to be a message condoning apartheid by a visiting sports team in Albany, there were people ready to counter it with an anti-apartheid protest.
Richard Lapchick was one such protestor. Lapchick had experience in race relations in sports, as his father, basketball coach Joe Lapchick, signed the first black man to play for the New York Knicks. Richard later earned a master's degree in African studies and published a journal on how apartheid plays a role in sports.
In 1978, while a professor at Virginia Wesleyan University, Lapchick protested against South Africa's tennis team playing games in America. He still carries a reminder of that protest - the word "NIGER" carved on his chest by two racists who disagreed with him. Despite that, Lapchick continued to speak out against the injustice of apartheid, and began organizing a full-scale non-violent protest to greet the Springboks.
And within weeks, other cities were getting the message. In New York City, mayor Ed Koch cited potential problems with crowd control, and rescinded a permit for the Springboks to play the U.S. National team, the Eagles, at Downing Stadium on Randall's Island. That contest was quickly rescheduled to be played in Rochester. In Chicago, the city council held meetings on South Africa's apartheid policies and the Springboks' relation to it; and Chicago mayor Jane Byrne suggested that the game move elsewhere.
In Albany, the Springboks were scheduled to play at Bleecker Stadium, a Depression-era field that usually hosted high school and semi-pro athletics. The decision as to whether the Springboks and the Eastern Rugby Union All-Stars could play at Bleecker was left to Erastus Corning 11, the mayor of Albany since 1941.
Corning saw the contest's opposition increase every day. Groups like the Albany NAACP and the newly formed Capital District Coalition Against Apartheid staged vocal protests at City Hall. Boji Jordan, an exiled South African lecturing at an Albany library, said his organization, the Pan Africanist Congress, would be in Albany and would help in any protest planned at the stadium. Jordan's organization had already been involved in violent, bloody protests in New Zealand, the Springboks' previous tour stop.
Letters poured into City Hall begging Corning to cancel the game. Six different Albany religious leaders, including Corning's own Sunday clergymen, sent a letter condemning the tour as supporting South African apartheid. And on August 25, 1981, barely a month before the contest, Corning made his final decision. "1 abhor everything about apartheid ... Our Constitution guarantees ... the right to publicly espouse an unpopular cause ... it is wrong to prohibit an individual or group from taking part in a public athletic event because of their beliefs or the policies of their government."
With that Voltarian statement, Corning allowed the game to be played as scheduled. As expected, the announcement received mixed reactions throughout the city. Free speech advocates and rugby fans hailed his decision, while rival politicians believed Corning had made a huge mistake.
Albany - Protest Site
And four days after the announcement, Richard Lapchick informed the media that Albany would be a site for a protest march and demonstration by members of SART (Stop the South African Rugby
Tour). "Albany is the only city where the mayor has publicly said the stadium can be used, and the only place where the opposition is organized," he said to the Albany Times-Union. "We feel Albany is the logical site to focus our attention."
Sportswriters at the time had no major league baseball to cover (due to a midseason player's strike), and Albany's rugby turmoil became the top sports story of the day. And in time, the rugby reports spilled over from the sports page to the front page of the local newspapers. One television anchorman even asked Selfridge if he could practice with the local rugby team, with the cameras filming him as the George Plimpton of rugby.
U.S. Olympic Committee
On a more serious side, the Eastern Rugby Union received calls to stop the Springboks games from another organization - the United States Olympic Committee. The last two Summer Olympics were decimated by boycotts (many African nations in 1976; the United States and its allies in 1980), and the USOC didn't want a third boycott at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
"I got called into a meeting with William Simon and the U.S. Olympic Committee," said Selfridge, "and they said, 'This Springbok tour is a volatile issue, and since we boycotted the 1980 Olympics, we don't want to have anything that might cause the Soviets to boycott the Los Angeles Olympics. I told them that they were kidding themselves if they thought that the Soviet Union would come to Los Angeles after we boycotted their Olympics."
And in late August, the Washington Post and the New York Times reported the Eastern Rugby Union received a $25,000 contribution from Louis Luyt, the South African industrialist whom Selfridge worked with to arrange the tour. Richard Lapchick informed the media that in the 1970's, Luyt had previously funneled funds from the South African treasury to buy international influence abroad. In essence, it appeared that Selfridge had accepted "blood money" to allow the Springboks to come to America.
After answering question after question from reporters and sportscasters, most of whom Selfridge felt didn't know the difference between a scrum and a rugger, he finally decided a full-scale press conference was necessary. All the local media showed up, ready to ask questions about the Springboks, South Africa's racial policies, and the threat of an Olympic boycott.
Selfridge walked into the press room, opened up an athletic bag and pulled objects out of it. "This," he said to the medal, "is a rugby ball. And these are rugby cleats. And this is a jock strap." After Selfridge took everything out of the athletic bag, he asked the media, "Now how many sportscasters are here?"
Only Mike Kane, a sportswriter for a newspaper in nearby Schenectady, raised his hand.
Selfridge pointed at him. "I'm buying this man dinner."
As the weeks before the Albany game turned into days, more media outlets set up shop in the area. Local newspaper reporters were joined by national writers from The New York Times. The television stations were now feeding information to the networks. By mid-September, Albany, Selfridge and rugby's opposition were frequent topics on the ABC show Nightline. Following are some snippets from the September 14, 1981 broadcast:
TED KOPPEL: Standing by live in our Los Angeles studio is Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Are you worried, Mr. Ueberroth? Do you think that this is going to have an effect on the 1984 Olympics?
PETER UEBERROTH: I think that the South African tour will cause the African nations to band together and talk about a boycott for 1984. It could be joined by some other Third World countries, it could be
joined by the Soviet Union ... You have to study rugby. It's not an Olympic sport. It's an issue that everyone knew, if the South African Springbok team came here it would cause some difficulties. And it's -to me it's almost a setup.
TED KOPPEL: All right, Tom Selfridge, you've got a couple of
things that I guess you need to respond to. That $25,000 from the African businessman. Did you take it?
TOM SELFRIDGE: Yes. We received a $25,000 contribution from Dr. Louis Luyt ... Dr. Luyt's money went into coaching and into refereeing programs and is not used on the Springbok tour, nor was it any motivation to invite the Springboks ... in the last eight years he's given some two or three million to rugby in South Africa, so that gift is not inconsistent with his athletic endeavors in the past.
TED KOPPEL: The central point seems to be that there is just so much at stake, and the government of South Africa is so noxious in its policy of apartheid that decency would have simply required that you don't play this particular series of games.
TOM SELFRIDGE: One of the difficulties as a sporting body is that we extend invitations to other teams on the basis of how well they play the game, and within the spirit of the law. The Eastern Rugby
Union clearly does not have a foreign policy. And would South Africa be unacceptable this year, perhaps acceptable next year, and Russia not acceptable?
On September 10, the Albany Common Council rubber-stamped Corning's approval of the contest at Bleecker Stadium. Fifty spectators at the Common Council meeting booed in protest.
Meanwhile, New York Governor Hugh Carey received a report that other groups planned to show up at the game - everybody from the Ku Klux Klan to the Black Panthers to the American Nazi Party and the Communist Worker's Party. In New Zealand, rugby protestors tossed Molotov cocktails and bricks at police. The National Guard might be needed, because the potential existed for a bloodbath in Albany. The New York City contest had been moved to Rochester, and now the Rochester mayor wanted that game canceled.
Governor Hugh Carey: Cancel the Game
Carey then issued a statement that because of the massive cost for police and crowd control, the Eastern Rugby Union - Springboks game in Albany should be canceled. "I don't think the games should be played anywhere in the United States," said Carey, "and that includes Albany."
Based on Carey's statement, Corning immediately canceled the game, saying that the mayor had no control over the situation if the Governor wanted the match called off.
Selfridge was furious. After a year of planning this tour, he had the Springboks on a plane from New Zealand ready for a three-game tour against - nobody? "Mayor Corning calls me," said Selfridge, "and asked me to come to his office. So I went down to Albany and he said, '1'm going to call the Governor and have this clarified.' So he called and the Governor wasn't in. So he asked for the next-in-command, and read the press release as it had been given to him, and stated that he would like to know if this was an Executive Order from the Governor's office. And the person on the other end of the phone said, 'if that's how you see it, then that's what it is. So at that moment, Mayor Corning interpreted hat it was for the City of Albany on the direction of the Governor to not allow the match to take place. So we pursued litigation and sought an injunction to stay the Executive Order."
Springboks 46, Midwest RFU 12
Saturday, September 19, 1981. The Springboks left their hotel in Chicago at the crack of dawn and drove 80 miles to Racine, Wisconsin to play a 9 a.m. match at a secret location in a city park in an all-black neighborhood.
The game had originally been scheduled for noon, but organizers in the rugby community moved the game up to thwart the efforts of protestors. Led by Jesse Jackson, several busloads of protestors
were stacking placards in their buses in Chicago just as the game kicked off in Racine, 1 1/2 hours away.
The Springboks defeated the Midwest Rugby Union, 46-12, in a game briefly interrupted by an on-field action by a single protestor.
Jackson's buses arrived after both teams had departed. The South Africans then boarded a plane for Albany, ready to play a game they weren't even sure was still scheduled.
Selfridge and the Eastern Rugby Union attorneys went to court to block Carey's Executive Order. On September 21, despite Carey employing 15 assistant attorney generals to enforce his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Howard G. Munson overturned the Order. "By enjoining the scheduled sporting event," the Judge ruled, "the Governor of New York seeks to destroy the very constitutional freedoms which have enabled more than a century-long struggle in this country to ensure racial equality."
ERU Office Bombed
September 22, 1:00 a.m. At radio station WWWD, disc jockey Dale Lane received a phone call from an individual who said that a bomb had been placed outside the temporary Schenectady offices of the Eastern Rugby Union. Lane hung up, figuring the caller was a wacko.
Twenty minutes later, a pipe bomb exploded outside the ERU offices, breaking the front door and shattering two windows.
"it was real clear," said Selfridge, "that this wasn't going to be a movement of protest. This was a movement to stop something. Fortyeight hours prior to the event, a shift took place."
"Albany wasn't aware that there had been a worldwide movement focused on New Zealand to stop the rugby tour, but the tactics were consistent with stopping rather than protesting something. When the bomb went off, people were beginning to deliver on their threats." Even the Springboks were becoming apprehensive about the Albany game. According to the South African newspaper Die Vaderland, if there was a flight back to South Africa from Chicago, many players would have been on it.
After District Court Judge Munson had overturned Carey's Executive Order, the State appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Documents were couriered from New York City to Washington, D.C. and a New York State attorney sat in the Supreme Court building, waiting for a decision. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who as an attorney successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education case that ended state-sanctioned school segregation in the South, issued a one-word ruling on Governor Carey's Executive Order. "Denied."
With that, Carey's Executive Order had been overturned by the highest court in America, and the Springboks would play their only U.S. game that was still on schedule.
Springboks 41, Eastern RFU 0
Twelve hundred hardy protestors stood at the rain-sprinkled steps of the Capitol building, while Willye Neal of Schenectady sang "We Shall Overcome" to a chorus of applause. Then, as the rain increased from a sprinkle to a steady teeming, 1,200 protestors walked the 1 '/2 miles to Bleecker Stadium, carrying signs that said "Victory to African Liberation, "'Stop the Springboks," and "Defeat White Supremacy." With the rain splashing off their umbrellas, they chanted, "One, Two, Three, Four, Stop the Springboks, Stop the Tour."
The Albany Chief of Police, John Dale, canceled all vacation time and personal days for September 22. Every available officer was stationed around Bleecker Stadium to keep the protestors in line. "We had police officers on the roof," recalled Dennis Beach, an Albany police officer. "Every officer was working. All days off were canceled. We had backup on the shifts, and the New York State Police were there."
Some cops even purchased protective cups from a sporting goods store near the stadium. Nobody was taking any chances today.
Nine arrests were made during the march, mostly on weapons charges and possession of tear gas. A Communist Workers Party member was arrested for possession of a weapon - a gun in his car which was parked near the Springboks' hotel. He was later told by a judge to leave Albany by midnight and never return.
At the stadium, Selfridge stood at the ticket window, exchanging
red tickets for autographed blue ones to foil counterfeiters. No tickets were sold at the game since the Executive Order was stayed; the 2,000 people who bought tickets were mostly rugby fans and club members.
Television cameras were set up throughout the stadium, ready to bring the contest (and any potential riot footage) to home viewers. All three local news shows rented helicopters to fly over Bleecker
Stadium; but none would fly in the continuing downpour. Even the local PBS affiliate, which normally didn't have its own news department, sent three cameras to the stadium.
The game itself was anticlimactic. The home-town Colonials played a conservative contest, holding the Springboks scoreless for the first fifteen minutes. But after the Boks' first try, the scoring floodgates opened. The mud-caked Springboks defeated the ERU AilStars 41-0 in a game which showed, at least on the field, that the South African team was years ahead of the Americans.
Meanwhile, the protestors marched outside the stadium. Pete Seeger sang in an adjacent park, and the police kept on the alert. The rain poured down for hours, and more than one person joked that Corning went up to the City Hall bell tower and called in a favor from the Lord.
Corning himself did not attend the game, resting instead at the private and exclusive Fort Orange Club. He later released a statement thanking the police for their efforts and the protestors for keeping the event from becoming violent. When somebody told him the final score was 41-0, he calmly asked, "Who won?"
Springboks 38, Eagles 7
The eyes of the world were on Albany that rainy September evening, but few noticed that the Springboks played their third U.S. game three days later. The visitors played the U.S. Eagles in the game originally scheduled in New York City, but later relocated to the Owl Creek Polo Ground, a private plot of land in Glenville, New York, with the Springboks winning 38-7.
The game was originally scheduled for Saturday, September 26h, but was moved up to Friday after a rugby club in Evansville, Indiana had been bombed. (The president of the Evansville All-Whites was
later charged with arson, in his attempt to collect insurance money).
Selfridge ran afoul of the United States of America Rugby Football Union with the day-early Eagle match. USARFU administrators had arrived from all across the country to watch a Saturday afternoon Springboks-Eagles contest, and they were furious when Selfridge rescheduled it for a day earlier. The lucky crowd of 30 spectators who saw the rescheduled match still ranks today as the lowest attendance for an international rugby match.
A full-scale investigation into the rugby tour, including Selfridge's actions, were later conducted.
There are numerous epilogues to the game at Bleecker Stadium. The Soviet Union, claiming inadequate security measures in Los Angeles, boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics. Almost every other Communist country joined in the boycott. The Olympics went on anyway, and all the African nations attended (with the exception of South Africa).
By 1990, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, South African president P.W. Botha was replaced by F.W. DeClerk, and South Africa's political system slowly changed - apartheid was, if not completely eliminated, slowly on the road to extinction.
Erastus Corning was re-elected to an unprecedented eleventh term as Albany mayor, but his advanced age prevented him from finishing out his term; two years after re-election, he passed away in his sleep.
Hugh Carey, the governor who tried to stop the game with an Executive Order, declined to seek re-election and his lieutenant governor, Mario Cuomo, was elected instead.
Richard Lapchick continued to speak out against racism and injustice, both in the United States and abroad.
Bleecker Stadium returned to anonymity, hosting the occasional high school football and amateur baseball game.
And Tom Selfridge, the man who brought the Springboks - and a mountainload of controversy - to Albany?
"The next time the Springboks come to the United States, apartheid will be gone. And the game will occur and maybe the score will be down next to the high school scores."
Much of this article is based on a personal interview with Tom
Selfridge. Other sources came from articles written in the Albany Times Union, Schenectady Gazette, Troy Times Record, Albany Knickerbocker News, Washington Post, New York Times, Die Vaderland and a transcript from ABC's Nightli ne.