A few short weeks ago football saw a blunder from their figurehead, Sepp Blatter.
The sporting world is thankfully trying to engender discussion about racism. Perhaps it has no choice as impossibly famous figures like Tiger Woods come into the spotlight with stories of his former caddy, Steve Williams, making racist remarks at a dinner. In England Premiership footballer Patrice Evra had accused Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez of racist language. QPR defender Anton Ferdinand quickly followed suit, indicting England captain John Terry for using similar terms.
It therefore made sense for some journalists to try and see what major names in World sport thought of the incidents. However, when FIFA president Sepp Blatter was asked what he thought of the footballing episodes by Al-Jazeera Television and CNN the Swiss politician replied that with racism players should just shake hands and leave it on the pitch.
Understandably this caused uproar. Blatter misinterpreted this outrage as people thinking he was a racist. This is not what people thought was wrong. It was more that he appeared willing to accept some forms of racism and not to acknowledge the lasting damage of any slurs directed at someone’s appearance.
This got me thinking. Surely this problem is not one unique to golf or football? Yes, we can talk about the fantastic changes in attitudes and the welcoming nature of Rugby Union. Teams refusing to play South Africa during apartheid was noble and right. Yet it does not mean those in rugby circles can ignore questions of racism now. It still exists.
Do not get me wrong. This is not a diatribe or a witch hunt. I am not going to name names or launch unsubstantiated attacks. Awareness and education is my only intention.
A team mate of mine, 27 year old CJ Osazuwa who is of Nigerian decent, spoke to me about whether or not he has had experience of racism in Scottish rugby. “Since I have been back playing in Scotland [since August 2008] I am glad to say there has only been one instance of racism” he told me. “A couple of weeks back when playing at 2nd XV level one opposition player thought it fit to say something distasteful.”
I am pleased to say I have never seen or heard anyone do this. I am proud of rugby in Scotland for having a relatively good record with things like this. We must be aware that it does happen, though.
Former GHK, Dundee HSFP, Glasgow Hawks and Club International flanker George Oommen is one of a tiny minority of rugby players that has an ethnic background in India or sub continental Asia. In fact he tells me that he thinks he can “only count two or three Asian guys I have played with or against.” He has certainly felt different, but it is a familiar stigma he has experienced. “I have been called a ‘nigger’” he tells me. He can rattle off a list of other obscenities but the image is clear. He has been singled out.
In March of 2002 John Beattie wrote an article for the Herald about an incident of racial abuse Oommen experienced whilst playing for GHK. The player in question was banned by his club and Beattie himself “applauded” the club for swift action. He then went on to say that there was no room for disgusting hate-fuelled tactics in rugby.
According to the 2001 census only 2% of Scots are non-white. As part of a minority it is perhaps easier to become known, particularly within a small and structured world of Scottish league rugby. “Incidents become less and less as you get older” Oommen insists “but not once has anyone approached or asked what has happened in the game, or acknowledged it [racist incident] has happened. People generally just brush it off.”
Now I am not implying that this is an issue endemic in Scottish rugby. It is not rife. There are no huge conspiracies to cover it up. Any incidents, thankfully, appear to be fleeting and incredibly infrequent. For example former Glasgow flanker Steve Swindle and current Glasgow winger Dave McColl are both happy to report they have never had any experiences of stigma or abuse. Our rugby certainly looks to me to be safer or more tolerant than some other sports.
The phrase I keep hearing is “It’s not as bad as football.”
Firstly, it saddens me that football still has this hanging over it. It is such a far-reaching, all-encompassing sport that one would think things should be better than they are. Osazuwa tells me “When I was playing semi-pro football I used to get racist abuse every two or three weeks, either by other players or more often than not the forty-odd fans and their dog.”
This is bad. It also makes rugby look better. But saying very few incidents are better than a fair few incidents is like comparing one kick in the pants to two. We should herald our sport as one where no incidents occur.
Thankfully our governing body are prepared to act. A few years ago the SRU held a hearing about an incident involving a player from Boroughmuir and Oommen. The SRU was prepared to act and by doing so it sent a message. It was not carried out behind closed doors. Also, a referee has assured me that if a top level ref heard any racism it would result in a straight red card. Any players come forward? It goes up to the SRU. How they handle it is up to them and their selected committees but perhaps there should be a set protocol for the handling of all racist behaviour…
I would not say that this is a problem eating up Scottish rugby. It is still a problem though, regardless of how little it comes to light. The key is educating the younger generations. Some DOs live in areas where there are few minority communities. Some work in areas that there are many. It should be a major part of the SRUs remit to reach as many with the positive powers of rugby as possible. Look at the new development at Inch Park Community Sports Club, in South Edinburgh (Lismore RFC). They go out of their way to say that they want rugby to reach minorities.
In the end it is about promoting tolerance and stamping out ignorance and abuse. Football has the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign. The SRU has aligned itself with ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ in the past. What has rugby got now, though? Let’s be proactive about issues like this. Let us also talk out if we come across anything hateful instead of just passively ignoring it.