The Saga Of Joe Marler, A Cautionary Tale Or A Storm In A Teacup?


The case keeps rearing its ugly head. It seems few are speaking of the Grand Slam possibilities this weekend as the issue of a comment in a game that has now been played out lingers. Joe Marler was overheard on the referee’s microphone calling Samson Lee a ‘gypsy boy’ in reference to his traveller background. By half time Marler of his own volition had sought Lee out to apologise, which Lee accepted.

A day before the Grand Slam decider, Marler has been cleared, Eddie Jones has reminded him of his responsibilities as an England rugby player, Warren Gatland has called it ‘banter’ then apologised for it, the Welsh Rugby Union has expressed its disappointment at Marler’s clearing and Rugby World have declared they want to investigate the Six Nations’ handling and ruling over the whole case.

It has all become quite complicated. The case certainly raises important issues, notably on offence. It is to see why Marler was wrong for what he did, and he apologised. The issue that has arisen is that the case has not finished there, Rugby World have the right to challenge the decision, but in doing so undermine the whole citing commission and the Six Nations’ ruling.

Last year Yohann Huget clearly stamped on the face of another player forcefully and extremely dangerously, nothing was done by any of rugby’s governing bodies when he could have blinded someone. The concern is in that case nothing came of the incident, in this instance there is a sense that the offence caused by Marler’s comment requires World Rugby to be seen to act. There are several problems that have arisen: Marler’s comment, Gatland’s view of it and Marler’s clearing of any charge.

In the past the case would have gone no further than Marler’s apology to Lee. In the past the referee was not wired up to a microphone that could make nearby comments audible to millions of people viewing the game. We have heard foul language before as a result of the ref’s mic but this is different. Marler has been deemed to have made a derogatory remark at Lee’s background and identity. However, after the incident Marler has done everything he could to show remorse and regret, he apologised to Lee at halftime.

The apology required a lot of honesty to admit he was wrong and overstepped the mark in the heat of a high pressure intense situation. Obviously despite playing out the rest of the half Marler had time to reflect on his comments, even though he would have been focusing on the game. Clearly there was remorse and he atoned for his actions as best he could. Lee later remarked that he considered the comments as ‘banter’ and had accepted the apology.

To put the incident into a wider context it is the same as an employee in a high pressured situation making an inappropriate comment about an employee of a rival company. In that case undoubtedly the employee would be disciplined internally, as Eddie Jones did by speaking to Marler.

However, Marler is a public figure and his actions should not be condoned. The issue with Gatland calling it ‘banter’ is that it could be seen as trivialising a case of bullying in which someone has said something inflammatory to another individual, something others deem racist. Marler’s intentions were never to upset Lee but simply to rile his adversary in a contest. The means by which he did it simply overstepped the mark.

This is where it becomes ambiguous and difficult. What is this so called ‘mark’ and where does it stand and for whom? Lee accepted the apology and wrote it off as ‘banter’, if he was that rival employee that could be the end of it? Yet as a remark which could be deemed racist that employee could pursue it further, indeed the offender could be fired. Marler’s case is accentuated because he is in the public domain. The problem is that for many observers took the comment as offensive.

I have so far tried not to use the word offensive because it is a very difficult term and concept. Offense is subjective, but we cannot ignore the fact that an action we may commit can offend and so upset another individual and undermine their sense of self-worth. However, because anything in theory can be deemed offensive it becomes more contentious. Although Marler’s comment is something a majority would agree is probably going to offend someone a majority does not mean it is right.

Then again what do we mean by ‘right’, who is judging us and by what standards? Indeed this is all theoretical and ignores individual feeling. In short it is safe to say the issue is complex and if a ‘right’ stance had been made on it the issue would not have become so contentious.


Does context change the action? Gatland and Lee both deemed the issue ‘banter’ for them it is part of rugby where people always tread a fine line with their jokes and their on-field comments in an attempt to wind up the opposition. The fact it occurs on a rugby field does not mean such actions should be condoned or defined as ‘banter’ because it undermines what is an important issue. For some viewers they deemed the issue one of racism.  To clarify the issue has been complicated by comments calling Marler’s remark ‘banter’, the fact that some have seen it as a racist comment means there must be an awareness that this is how people can perceive the claim. A few years ago David Pocock complained to the referee because he heard homophobic comments from an opposition player. He was met with a mixed reaction on social media, some declared him thin-skinned, while others applauded his awareness that just because you’re on a rugby field you cannot say whatever you want to wind up an opponent. How is the earlier issue any different from the one we have today? Like racism homophobia is something that many have been discriminated against.


At the end of the day sledging is an issue at large in sport, it can come from fans and players and rugby is not the worst by far. Nevertheless, in reality an individual should let their ability do the talking, an inflammatory comment could be seen as a sign of uncertainty, that you are threatened by your opposite number’s ability. The best player in theory would accept this challenge and match it in deeds. However, sport, as is life, is as much of a psychological battle as it is a physical one, so a player will play on this, seeking to unsettle their opposition. In fact this comes from life experience where under threat we often seek to blame, or challenge and confront others whose ability cannot be questioned while the person can be. When this is put into the context of competition where everything is at stake and the result is the most crucial fact, it is hard to see why someone wouldn’t seek to use everything they can to get the better of their adversary both in words and deeds. In a similarly unfortunate turn of events a friend told me how a fight broke out in his student union over the match. This is a sad state of affairs, when ultimately sport has no genuine meaning or baring on life, besides the value we give it. However, rugby lasts for 80 minutes and indeed Marler understood that his actions were wrong, in apologising to Lee he was apologising for his actions, aware that at the end of the day the competition was worth far less. What Marler did cannot be condoned but his actions afterwards are correct, many would have brushed it aside as ‘banter’, many may have even defended their actions or tried to justify them, instead Marler acknowledged what he did. This action means that he would likewise accept any punishment, but what would such punishment achieve?


The incident shows that sport must always remain aware of its position in a wider framework where individuals are public figures people look up to. Offense is a pertinent problem. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is a saying few would agree with today, and is the implication of consigning the events to ‘banter’. It is hard to draw conclusions in a politically correct world where everyone must be aware of others. After the event Marler acted as best he could, but still the act had been done. It does act as a lesson to any sporting professional that they are in a world of increasing scrutiny and must be fully aware of the implications of their actions. Maybe it simply requires someone to take a step back and simply acknowledge that while they are in competition with someone else, life is far more than a competition, the competitors are both human beings, they both have feelings and they both have their own values, to respect them in the heat of battle is difficult but not impossible and absolutely necessary, because when the blood, sweat and tears are shed they’re both human.



About Alexander Whitton

Alex Whitton is a diehard England fan, and long-time injured loose-head prop who always fancied himself as a fly half. Yet to progress further back than the front row he's hoping to re-commence rugby in the new season at uni, probably no further back than the front row again. Nonetheless he will still dream of dummying the drift defence charging through and chipping the full back to touch don under the posts. While this will always be a dream he loves everything rugby related, especially anything to do with England as they begin their march to world cup glory 'cough' in the near future.

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