When speaking to Alastair Campbell recently, Maro Itoje decried the “subtle racism” he sees in sport, in particular the manner in which black players are treated by the press and described by match commentators. Itoje, echoing the view of Sachin Nakrani in The Guardian, believes, “when they describe black players they talk about athleticism, their power, their speed,” as opposed to skill, intelligence or tactical nous.
The racism Itoje is referring to then, is more subconscious racism, and the issue he wants to tackle that of how black people are perceived and portrayed, in sport as well wider society. Building upon the arguments made by footballers Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling, regarding the pigeonholing of ethnic minorities into pre-conceived typecasts, the issue Itoje raises is perhaps even more pertinent to rugby, with its natural emphasis on athleticism and aggression. The stereotypical language surrounding physically imposing black or Polynesian players, such as ‘tank,’ or ‘beast,’ which often does the rounds on social media, and must be recognised as problematic coverage.
Whilst Itoje himself cannot recall having directly suffered from verbal racist abuse on the sports pitch, he reveals that many of his friends, whether at county level, or the U-20’s World Cup, have done. Nevertheless, Itoje acknowledges sport has allowed him to bypass from some of the obstacles faced by others, stating, “my experience is not the typical experience of a black man in London because sport is one of the few disciplines or institutions based on merit.”
However, rugby, in England and across the world, has long been the preserve of the affluent minority, making it both socially and racially exclusive. The most extreme historical example of this is apartheid South Africa. Twenty four years ago today, a hopeful and rejuvenated South Africa was waking up the day after Nelson Mandela had lifted the Webb-Ellis Cup. Yet, as recently as 2015, the South African rugby team has faced criticism for over representing white players. Whilst the country continues to grapple with the issue of race, the rise of Siya Kolisi, made captain in 2018, has allayed many fears.
The significance of a black Springboks captain was not lost on Bryan Habana, who stressed, “it’s a monumental moment for South African rugby, and a moment in South African history.” Significantly, in an environment where race relations are often used for political capital, Kolisi was universally accepted as the ideal candidate; hugely deserving of the role, a model professional, an inspiring player and a symbol of modern South Africa, a man whom not even the most ardent cynics could argue was a political appointment.
In Australia, issues of race, culture and class are hugely complex. Whereas Pacific Islanders are well represented in rugby union at all levels, only fourteen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players have ever represented the Wallabies. In stark contrast, there were 80 Aboriginal players in the ARL in 2018, and the figures are similar in the NRL. Again, Australian rugby union has struggled to shake the image of being a privileged sport, played only by a, mainly white, elite. The sport is missing out on huge untapped potential as a result. Controversially, Australian boxer Anthony Mundine has suggested that much of the outcry regarding Israel Folau has been based on underlying racism, arguing, “it’s not about the Bible… it’s a black man expressing it.”. Whilst this appears a bizarre, misguided accusation, one ignoring the critical factor of Folau’s homophobia, it speaks to the fractured nature of Australian rugby more generally.
Across the water, in New Zealand, a series of racially motivated verbal attacks have led to the relationship be described as “intolerable.” Fijian born wing Peni Manumanuniliwa was abused in the Country Rugby final, and whilst the perpetrator was banned for 46 weeks, this incident sparked a moral inquiry from those involved in New Zealand rugby into the existence of racially motivated abuse in the game.
Fundamentally, sport reflects society, or at least the subsection of society who engage in the sport in question. This is not, however, an excuse for complacency in rugby union, and although inclusivity is a term often bandied around, enacting it often proves more difficult. Ultimately, rugby needs to listen to those such as Itoje, who identify and articulate issues within the game, and react accordingly.
Written by Joe Ronan