Let the words ‘I’ve never experienced racism in rugby’ never be uttered again. After a shameful week for Argentinian rugby, and the sport as a whole, the debate over racism and its presence in rugby union is no longer the argument that needs to be had. The reinstatement of Pablo Matera as captain of the Pumas national team has proven just that.
The 27-year-old flanker was stripped of the captaincy at the start of the week after racist posts resurfaced from his Twitter account, which were initially published between 2011 and 2013. Along with his teammates Guido Petti and Santiago Socino, Matera was suspended for two weeks, and also told he would no longer lead the national team. The Argentine Rugby Union (UAR) issued a statement to say it “forcefully rejects the discriminatory and xenophobic comments” made by all three players, and action to stand them down for selection until full disciplinary procedures are completed.
The punishment was for vile comments about black people along with Bolivians and Paraguayans - two of Argentina’s bordering neighbours. Matera referenced “a nice morning to go out and run over blacks” with his car in a series of disparaging comments. Petti labelled his maid a “primate”, and Socino said that although he “does not support Apartheid could we start differentiating regular buses from those with blacks with the music out loud?”.
Yet it seems that the UAR statement must have been sent out in error, as just 48 hours later, Matera was returned the captaincy and all three saw their suspensions lifted. But what about those “discriminatory and xenophobic comments”? Merely “imprudent and immature”, according to a fresh UAR release.
The Argentina head coach, Mario Ledesma, also gave the disgraced trio a glowing reference, explaining that they can’t possibly be racists because they are all such great guys.
"All I can say about these three fine players and great men is that they are great human beings," Ledesma said, rather extraordinarily, despite not selecting his pack of great guys for Saturday’s Tri-Nations finale with Australia because being so great had triggered a fierce and abusive backlash that required them to be taken out of the firing line.
"They have been suffering a lot this week, their families have been suffering a lot this week, and it's really sad to see. Obviously they acknowledge what they did and they are really regretful and ashamed of what they did, and we all are.
"I can say they are not the same people they were when they were 17, 18 years old. They are great men, family men, Pablo has a kid now, he's a great leader and a great example."
Sorry Mario, but racists have children too. Argentina’s apparent failure to acknowledge their racist language and instead paint them as the victims of an unjust response only goes to prove the argument that racism is alive within the sport. Matera, Petti and Socino do not deserve to be abused, nor do their families as has been the case this week, and fighting hate with hate will produce nothing but more hate.
But if the UAR had dealt with the issue responsibly and not seemingly with a simple shrug of the shoulders, then there would be no need for full review into how the matter has been handled. How can any Argentine player, past, present or future, be educated on any unacceptable viewpoint if those at the very top of the national game do not appear to take this matter seriously?
Former Harlequins, England and Lions wing Ugo Monye explained the matter perfectly in that the issue here is not the individual players who expressed those views nearly a decade ago, but the fact that while a person can be educated to change their ways, it’s impossible to do so when an entire board seems to shirk all responsibility to lead by example.
“The UAR have come out and said that those posts were ‘imprudent’ and ‘immature’. Just so we’re clear Argentina, they’re not immature, they’re racist. That’s exactly what they are, they’re racist and they’re vile,” Monye said on BBC Five Live.
“The thing for me is the way in which Argentina have classified those tweets. It’s hard to deal with racism if you don’t consider it to be racist at all, hence why we’ve seen this toing and froing.”
One of the key issues that has emerged this year surrounding rugby and racism is a reluctance to accept it exists. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd earlier this year made its way into the sport in August when players were given the choice of taking a knee in support of racial equality. The Premier League, which admittedly has a much greater problem with racism within its sport, grasped this chance to show unity as every player elected to take a knee together before every match. Not all of them have been affected by racism, but there was and is a collective desire to show support for those that have.
Rugby struggled with its response. The 12 Premiership clubs put together a mishmash of gestures with some teams taking the knee, some stood in circles, some stood in hearts and others choosing to stand while teammates knelt because they didn’t agree with the Black Lives Matter group that has taken a politically divisive approach to the subject. A number of Premiership-based South Africans decided they couldn’t take a knee, despite Springboks captain Siya Kolisi expressing his hope that everyone would do so to show unity.
That confusion from the very top echoed through the game. When the concept of the Black Lives Matter movement reached rugby union, many journalists asked me why it was important that players showed a collective stance, following extensive coverage on the subject across other sports. It was an attempt to educate themselves on a subject that they did not know a great deal on due to their own experiences, as opposed to someone who has been racially abused on a rugby pitch.
But others persisted. ‘Racism couldn’t possibly exist in rugby union because I’ve never experienced it!’
It is a statement that is categorically false, and it is a stance that displays an ignorant know-it-all belief, one that shuns education because they believe they already have the answers. It is this exact view that I believe has been promoted by the UAR, and one that shows rugby union in the worst possible light at a time when the world around it is changing.
Monye added: “It’s about how we deal with racism full stop. Rugby doesn’t know how to deal with it, hence why we’ve seen a U-turn within 48 hours. If those tweets were homophobic, I think we’d know what would happen, I think we know how we’d deal with it. But racism just seems to be theis outlier forever because no one wants to own up to it.
“If you’ve got the Union saying ‘it’s immature’ - and that’s what they think it is, it’s immature - I just want to see some level of conviction. Own up to it, face up to what it is, let’s deal with it and let’s move on. I don’t think eight years on Pablo Matera needs to be fined and everything else for things he did eight years ago. The person I was eight years ago isn’t the person I am today.
“If (the) UAR want to file that tweet under immature and imprudent, we don’t even have a starting position, because they haven’t accepted it. They haven’t acknowledged it because their sole interest is to protect one player over millions of people that it affects every single day. For me that’s absolutely disgraceful.”
It is a sad truth that should not be happening within a professional sport in 2020. Because of their inaction, the backlash against Matera, Petti and Socino will grow stronger, and rather than be allowed to repent for the discriminatory views that they may no longer believe in, they will instead become villains in the battle for equality, racists in a sport that claims all colours and backgrounds are welcome. Rugby can continue to preach about its values, but it really needs to start letting its actions do the talking.
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