Home Rugby Joe Marler’s Words Are Not Banter. They Are Racist.

Joe Marler’s Words Are Not Banter. They Are Racist.

BAGSHOT, ENGLAND - MARCH 15: Joe Marler catches the ball during the England training session held at Pennyhill Park on March 15, 2016 in Bagshot, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Daire O’Driscoll discusses the reaction to Joe Marler’s “gypsy boy” comment during England’s 6 Nations clash with Wales.

Rugby fans and World Rugby like to portray their sport as a bastion of sportsmanship and higher moral conduct. World Rugby’s memo urging referees to clamp down on “football culture” and referee Nigel Owens’ perpetual reminder to players that they are not on a soccer field highlight the self-righteous assertiveness of many within the game.

The most tired of rugby clichés springs to mind: “the thug’s game for gentlemen”.

During England’s 6 Nations showdown with Wales last weekend, England’s Joe Marler called Wales front row Samson Lee “gypsy boy”.  England coach Eddie Jones confirmed to the media that Marler had apologised to Lee at half time and both were keen to move on. The incident is still under investigation and Marler could face a potential 4 week ban.

Given this self-righteous attitude, it is surprising that Wales coach Warren Gatland has dismissed the abuse of Samson Lee as “banter”. The Kiwi went on to say that he was “more concerned about the forearm”, referring to Marler’s alleged strike on Rob Evans for which he has been cited.

The dismissal of the incident from both Gatland and Jones is disturbing.

The sportsmanship and higher moral code of rugby has morphed into something resembling a Sicilian code of omertà. Many prominent former players have welcomed Gatland’s comments, including former England captain Will Carling.

When asked whether a Welsh player would receive the same level of criticism for calling an English player “posh boy” Carling responded with: “where will the line be drawn?”.

Gatland, Jones and Carling are all grossly ill informed. Racism is never banter. The anti-racism education charity, Show Racism the Red Card, is unequivocal in its stance.

Can racism ever be “just banter?

No! Using someone’s skin colour or ethnicity as an insult has a deep effect. It implies that it is negative to be of that background and attacks something which is a big part of that person’s identity. It is not just an attack on the individual, but on other members of their family, community or group. Allowing ‘jokes’ or ‘banter’ about someone’s skin colour, nationality, religion or culture creates a society where that behaviour is deemed acceptable and paves the way for ridicule, name calling, exclusion and more serious forms of racism like violence and murder (via Show Racism the Red Card)

The message sent by Gatland, Jones and Carling is that leading a forearm into someone’s face in a contact sport is more serious than hurling a racial slur. If an eye gouge, punch or forearm to the face are not acceptable in the “heat of the game”, then why is racial abuse more acceptable? Disturbingly, according to a poll ran on Wales Online, 42% of people agree with Gatland.

While it is generally true that football lags behind Rugby in modernising the game, authorities and associations have been quicker to act on incidents of racism. Rugby has been quicker to embrace technology and prevent misconduct on the field. Yet their reaction to and punishment of racial abuse is inadequate.

In 2011 Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was banned for 8 games for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. If Marler was suspended for 8 games rather than 4 weeks, the ban would stretch until England’s tour of Australia in June. Altogether Marler’s ban would amount to a total of 14 weeks. Something just doesn’t add up.

Those of traveller descent are among the most marginalised and vilified ethnic groups in the UK and Ireland. 9 out of 10 gyspy and traveller children have been subject to some form of racial abuse. 

Gatland, Jones and Carling are intrinsically abetting racist abuse of travellers and gypsies by their comments.

In 2014 Toulon fullback Delon Armitage was banned for 12 weeks for telling a supporter to “fuck off” twice. If found guilty of racially abusing a fellow player Marler will receive at least 4 weeks. It is impossible to cardinally rank offensiveness, yet Armitage telling a supporter to “fuck off” is aimed at one person only. Marler’s derogatory reference to Lee’s heritage goes beyond the player himself to the wider travelling community.

If World Rugby and the RFU want to send the message that they are the last outpost of a higher moral code in professional sport then it is they that must act. They must not allow Rugby’s informal code of sportsmanship turn into cycling’s peleton omertà, where immoral behaviour goes unpunished. Marler should not be allowed hide behind his apology to Lee. He must be held accountable for his actions.

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