If someone asked you why you love rugby? What would you tell them?
Honesty, integrity, physicality, passion, camaraderie, equality, skill – any of these could be used as a reason to love the game but what about inclusivity?
After all, rugby is one of the few sports in the world where people of all shapes and sizes can excel at the highest level. The sport has made great strides in recent years with the promotion of the women’s game, too. So what about a player’s sexuality?
Modern, professional sport, especially on the male-dominated end of the spectrum, is still an environment where it can be incredibly difficult for players to speak openly about their sexuality. Gareth Thomas openly admitted that he was gay in 2009, an incredibly brave decision and one which was groundbreaking as he was the first openly gay professional rugby player.
Since then we have seen other players at the top of the game come out, most notably England Sevens international, Sam Stanley and rugby league’s Keegan Hirst who plays for Wakefield Trinity.
However, there is no doubting that due to the ‘macho’ nature of rugby, it can make the decision to come out even more difficult than it already is.
This is why Mathieu Bastareaud’s paltry three-week suspension for openly using a homophobic slur against Benetton’s Sebastian Negri Da Oleggio sends a very disappointing message to any player, at any level, who may be struggling with opening up about their own sexual orientation.
Ultimately, what the independent Disciplinary Hearing concluded was that Bastareaud’s “f****** f****t” comment was at the low end of the spectrum when it comes to verbally abusing another player.
Basteraud was charged in contravention of Law 9.12 which you can see defined below.
Law 9.12 Verbal abuse of a player
Under World Rugby’s Sanctions for Foul Play, Law 9.12 carries the following sanction entry points – Low End: 6 weeks; Mid-range: 12 weeks; Top end: 18 to 52 weeks.
The disciplinary committee found that “the offence was at the low end of World Rugby’s sanctions and six weeks was selected as the appropriate entry point.”
It’s disappointing and overly concerning that three people, Rod McKenzie (Scotland), Chairman, Jennifer Donovan (Ireland) and Becky Essex (England), determined that this offence warranted a low-level sanction. If using a homophobic slur, especially in the aggressive and vitriolic manner in which Bastareaud delivered it, is deemed a ‘low-end’ offence then what would someone have to say for verbal abuse to be categorised as ‘mid-range’ or ‘top-end’?
Bastareaud may argue that he was unaware of the homophobic nature of the word but it remains his responsibility to own the language he uses.
Rugby’s disciplinary process has its critics and flaws which include the cutting of suspensions due to guilty pleas (Bastareaud’s suspension was cut from six weeks to three due to his admission of guilt) but it’s the initial entry-point of the ban which sends a terrible message to anyone of the LGBT community who plays rugby.
To put the farcical nature of his ban into perspective, James Haskell, received a ‘mid-range’ ban of six weeks which was subsequently reduced by two weeks due to his own guilty plea, remorse and prior disciplinary record.
Haskell’s tackle on Jamie Roberts was dangerous and reckless which warranted a ban but it was not deliberate or intentional. Bastareaud on the other hand, although he and others may believe the term he used isn’t derogatory towards gay people, used a term which is deeply offensive and that has long been associated with homophobia.
Yet, Haskell received four weeks and Bastareaud three. The mind boggles.
One hopes that any gay player, be them young or old, professional or amateur, are not discouraged from this shameful sanction.
The sport had an excellent opportunity to send out a strong, firm message to the world that rugby is a game where anyone – no matter what age, size, race or sexual preference – can enjoy but ultimately what they have achieved is the reinforcement of the notion that rugby is a ‘macho’ sport where indifference is allowed to be ridiculed and derided.
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