The Rugby Football Union is facing calls to launch an investigation after former England centre Luther Burrell said team-mates had called him a “n-----” and “slave” and proclaimed racism was “rife” in rugby.
The RFU was warned not to repeat the mistakes made during cricket’s racism scandal by failing to act following an extraordinary interview by Burrell in which he also said comments had been made to him about bananas and fried chicken during racist “banter” that took place “every week”.
The 32-year-old – who has played for Leeds, Sale, Northampton and Newcastle – blew the whistle on rugby’s dressing-room culture barely two years after Azeem Rafiq did the same in his own sport, sparking a crisis that still persists to this day.
Burrell was also said by the Mail on Sunday to have recent hard evidence of the bigotry in the game in the shape of WhatsApp messages.
Damian Hopley, the chief executive of the Rugby Players Association, said Burrell had been “incredibly brave” speaking out, warning: “If this is rife then the sport needs to take action.”
Stressing lessons needed to be learnt from cricket’s botched handling of Rafiq’s complaints of racism, he added: “The hurt that this clearly caused needs to be investigated. If there is a toxic dressing room culture, as we’ve seen from other sports, that needs to be stamped out.”
Any investigation could be complicated by the fact Burrell said in his interview he would “never name names”, saying he had gone public to provoke change and prevent his three- and five-year-old children going through what he had.
Hopley said an inquiry was nevertheless needed to establish the scale of the problem in the game, proclaiming: “The truth must out.”
Burrell told the Mail on Sunday: “Things get said in jest without any thought. Every week, every fortnight. Comments about bananas when you’re making a smoothie in the morning. Comments about fried chicken when you’re out for dinner.
“I’ve heard things that you wouldn’t expect to hear 20 years ago. We had a hot day at training and I told one of the lads to put on their factor 50. Someone came back and said, ‘You don’t need it, Luth, put your carrot oil on’. Then another lad jumps in and says, ‘No, no, no, he’ll need it for where his shackles were as a slave’.
“Excuse my language but, what the f---? Where does that come from? Some players shake their head and others laugh along with it.
“People greet you as, ‘What’s up my n-----?’ It’s not meant in a bad way but when is it going to change? It’s a very, very raw subject. Over the past few years, it’s happened a lot. That’s the environment.
“It’s normalised because I allowed it to become normalised. I’d laugh it off. I’ve been a coward by not speaking up. Over the years, I’ve become thicker skinned. You know how long I’ve thought about talking about this. I will never name names but it’s gone on for too long.”
Burrell, who was released by Newcastle at the end of the season, also laid bare his fear about going public.
He said: “All the black people I spoke to about this said, ‘Yes, do it’. The white people were all supportive but they said things like, ‘Ooh, do you not want to get your next contract sorted first?’ If that’s the attitude then I don’t want a contract at those clubs.”
And he warned younger black players would not join him in speaking out.
“The young guys aren’t going to say anything, are they? There’s seniority in rugby environments. If you’re a 20-year-old you’re scared of getting told to shut the f--- up.
“After a few beers, I’ve said, ‘Mate, you’ve got to stop saying that’, but it never changed anything. You just get, ‘We love you really mate’.
“If I was 10 years younger, no way would I be sat here doing this. You want to fit in. You want to be liked.”
Bill Sweeney, the RFU’s chief executive, said: “We are disturbed that this has been Luther’s experience and we applaud him for speaking out, racism in any walk of life is not acceptable. I have had a conversation with Luther to see if we can learn from his experience and possibly work with him as an advocate of change. Inclusion and diversity is at the heart of our strategy and we want to improve education and awareness across our game. We apologise to Luther and all of those who have experienced any form of discrimination and will continue to work to eliminate it from our game.”
Simon Massie-Taylor, chief executive of Premiership Rugby added: “We applaud Luther for speaking out on this subject but it is saddening to hear some of the language and attitudes he has been exposed to.
“I have spoken with Luther to apologise for what he has experienced and to offer support.
“Whilst there is a lot of positive activity in the area of equality, diversity and inclusion, this is a reminder of how far we still need to go.”