Alongside Tony Rowe’s office desk in Exeter sits a black box-file stuffed with letters. “See that there,” he says, slapping it with his right hand. “That’s 10,000 people who wrote in support two years ago. There were 6,000 against it but I even have correspondence in support of us from people who represent Native American tribes. They’re warriors and we admire their guts and determination. We modelled ourselves on them.”
Welcome to the debate currently swirling around the saloons of Devon and beyond. This week’s strong statement from Wasps, urging the Rugby Football Union to consider a ban on fans wearing Native American headdresses and standing firm against cultural appropriation – “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own” – has further upped the ante and ruffled feathers at Sandy Park. If the Chiefs’ visit to Coventry promises much on the field, it could be even livelier in the boardroom.
It is certainly not how Rowe wanted to mark either this weekend’s first anniversary of one of club rugby’s all-time great achievements or Exeter RFC’s 150 years of existence. If it feels longer than 12 months since once-homely Exeter brought home the European Champions Cup it is because so much else has happened. Covid-19, financial headaches, stadium building delays, angry petitions: the romantic glow that once clung to Exeter’s every move is in danger of disappearing.
As their director of rugby, Rob Baxter, observed this week, there are far more pressing worldwide issues just now than a rugby club badge. But try telling that to the vocal dissenters who accuse Exeter and Rowe of being, at best, tone deaf to shifting modern attitudes. Having never sought a dull life – he was once a British powerboating champion while his real father (whom he never knew) was a lion tamer and a ringmaster with Billy Smart’s Circus – the Exeter chairman is enjoying scant respite in his 70s.
His argument is that the word “Chiefs” has long been synonymous with the club’s first team – “We’ve been known as Exeter Chiefs for well over a century … we didn’t create the name just for branding” – but the distinctive big chief motif, in place since 1999, is more problematic. What happens, furthermore, if a world club championship starts in 2024 and the global focus intensifies further?
The debate now extends way beyond fancy dress “war bonnets” or toy inflatable tomahawks. Differing worldviews, pot-stirring, wilful intransigence or virtue signalling? Rowe feels the “do-gooders” are overthinking it. “There’s nothing racist about it. We’re not trying to belittle the image or ancestry of anyone. We want to be like those Indian chiefs. On that basis, if I go to church on Sunday and praise God am I doing something wrong? Are all these people really getting upset in North America? I don’t quite believe that. At the end of the day, what is the real harm? If you take 100 people and ask them to draw you a picture of a chief, what are they going to draw? They’re going to draw you a Native American chief.”
Rowe, as it happens, has always had an interest in history. “I’m a historian. It was my best subject at school … I was crap at everything else.” He is rather less of a fan of what he sees as modern revisionism. “People want to try and change history. It’s like when they pulled down the statue in Bristol. You can’t paint over history and pretend it didn’t happen.”
But for those still hoping that Exeter will belatedly take a lead from American sport where the Washington Redskins, among others, have renamed themselves, here is a significant newsflash. Rowe says that club members will be invited to have their say at the club’s scheduled AGM on 24 November.
“Although I run what I jokingly call a democratic dictatorship, I do listen to people. If the membership says we have got to change, I will change. Money doesn’t come into it at all.” What does he think the outcome will be? “I’ve got a sense that the members are going to tell me to stay where I am. I’ve had a lot of correspondence from a lot of supporters.” OK, so what about the players? Are they all onside? “I have never had one of my current or past players ever say to me they have a problem calling themselves an Exeter Chief or wearing the kit.”
This is perhaps not the moment to glance at the wall behind Rowe’s desk and see a carving of a Native American chief, complete with Exeter-themed face paint, staring back. Visitors also still walk past a totem pole in reception and the post-match Wigwam bar does not commemorate Devon’s hairpiece wearers. Harmless fun or crassly offensive?
What no one disputes is Rowe’s colossal contribution to the club since he first became a sponsor in 1993. Notwithstanding the Baxter family, Exeter’s rise would not have happened without him. Which is why he remains bitter about recent media stories seeking to conflate the lack of a new main shirt sponsor – another of Rowe’s companies has since filled the breach – with the branding furore. “I don’t think you’re in a very nice profession. There are a lot of people who just want to talk about the crap and the shit. They don’t want to talk about the positive things in life.”
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He also reckons outsiders have underestimated the stress of keeping afloat a business, including a new women’s squad, in the era of Covid. “We were haemorrhaging £1m a month,” says Rowe. “In the year to June 2020 we lost £2.26m. We haven’t had the accounts for 2020-21 yet but I wouldn’t mind betting we’re going to lose another £8-9m. I am surprised a couple of the other clubs are still here. The owners and chairmen don’t get a lot of credit and we’re always getting knocked but they’re the people having to put their hands in their pockets.”
Even fewer would have had a pacemaker fitted during the week of Exeter’s European triumph, been discharged from hospital on game day to rush up to Bristol and still shared full-on bear hugs with his players after the final whistle. “There’s a picture of me doubled over after Stuart Hogg slapped me on the chest … it wasn’t pleasure, it was pain.”
Happier times all round, unlike this week’s diplomatic wasps’ nest. With hindsight, would he have done anything differently? The riposte is instant: “I’ve no regrets about anything.” Once Rowe digs in his heels, he is an extremely hard man to shift.