Rugby’s uncomfortable truth – it has a racism problem

Rugby’s uncomfortable truth – it has a racism problem
Rugby’s uncomfortable truth – it has a racism problem

As rugby reels from Ugo Monye’s claim to have been racially abused by a fan at Exeter, the truly alarming reality is that his account does not exist in isolation. Luther Burrell, who has expressed solidarity with his fellow England alumnus, admits he is “not too surprised”, highlighting the “numerous incidents that have occurred over the past 18 months”. For all that Premiership clubs are falling over themselves to convey their shock and horror, the Monye story comes less as a bolt from a clear blue sky than as an extension of a grimly familiar pattern.

In the past month alone, a former Rugby Football Union council member has been banned from attending matches for a year after calling a Twickenham volunteer a “black c---”, while England flanker Tom Curry has accused South Africa’s Bongi Mbonambi of labelling him a “white c---”. The Springboks hooker denies the allegation, but Curry has since doubled down, insisting he did not mishear. Throw in the RFU’s finding this year that racism is experienced by players “in every area of elite rugby” and a distressing picture emerges: one in which a poison is percolating through the sport at all levels, from the boardroom to the stands to the pitch.

While clubs’ sentiments towards Monye are all variations on a “we are with you” theme, the man himself describes how he is tired of hearing the same platitudes parrotted. You can understand his fatalism, given his accusation that supporters at Sandy Park heard somebody shout “n----, n----” at him and failed to offer any challenge. Even though Exeter have promised to investigate Monye’s description of “blatant racism”, one simple question remains: can rugby back up the chorus of after-the-event condemnation on social media by acknowledging the scale of the problem it confronts?

It is almost 18 months since Burrell first laid bare the trauma of his own experiences, arguing that racism was “rife” in rugby and documenting how “Negro” was casually used on players’ WhatsApp groups. He contended that even the grimmest comments about bananas and fried chicken, throwbacks to the bigotry of the 1980s, had become normalised in dressing-room discourse. Burrell’s intervention was well-timed, coming mere days after Ellis Genge revealed a Twitter message that he had received with the n-word, saying: “It’s important to highlight that this is still a massive problem. Common occurrence. Socials/law should come down on it.”

In the midst of the Monye outrage, it is apt to ask what progress, if any, has been made. Last Christmas, Cherif Traore disclosed he had been given a rotten banana during the Secret Santa hand-outs at Benetton Treviso. The Italian club was adamant it had been a mistake, but this sat awkwardly with the Guinea-born prop’s own reflections that his own team-mates, men whom he had assumed were his friends, responded with gales of laughter. “As if everything is normal,” he despaired. “As if I’m used to it or, better, I’ve had to get used to it – having to make a good face whenever I hear racist jokes to try not to hate the people close to me.”

It is not just Italy, and it is not just England. Last week, an independent review of the Welsh Rugby Union concluded that “aspects of the culture” were, in addition to being sexist, misogynistic and homophobic, “racist”. Charlotte Wathan, once the union’s general manager of women’s rugby, said that in an online meeting in 2020, she had heard the term “P---” used. Marc Roberts, a senior manager, supported her testimony, saying that he had called out the language at the time as unacceptable, but that it was promptly used again.

A few days after the publication of that report, it feels as if rugby is back in the sewer, with one of the game’s most popular presenters distraught at the events he has outlined at Exeter. It is not just the dehumanising prejudice that traumatises the victims in such cases, but also their sense that nobody in authority is looking out for them. Monye said he was “so fed up” at the experience, and as well he might be: the proximity of rugby and racism in the headlines happens too often to be passed off as mere coincidence.

The most vexed question is what rugby can do to purge this toxicity. Urging some sweeping inquiry seems too glib. Cricket attempted this in the aftermath of Azeem Rafiq’s claims of institutionalised racism at Yorkshire, and the results have been mixed, to say the least. When the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket delivered 316 pages of thundering rebukes in June, many in the game bristled, wary of being tarred with the same censorious brush. Lord Botham, no less, said that he had thrown the document on the floor. “It has taken 2½ years to write,” he lamented. “The point is that they are generalising and you cannot generalise. There will be isolated incidents and it can go both ways, it’s not just a one-way street.”

It will not wash for rugby to invoke the “isolated incident” defence. Too many players, both past and present, have endured too much hurt for the game to treat their tormentors as aberrant voices. The only lasting solution to racism, as we have seen across sport, is to improve the quality of education. On the surface, this imperative extends far beyond rugby’s remit. What it can do, though, is to keep reminding players and fans of the codes that should prevail in a civilised society. Why are players still saying “Negro” in the name of matey repartee? Is this not an indictment of how low standards have remained? The time for a correction is now. Otherwise rugby will soon, just like cricket, be facing a day of reckoning.

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