The reaction to the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman served as a reminder of the impact of his body of work not least the influence of his portrayal of King T’Challa, the Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Amongst the reaction was a clip of African American children, women and men talking about the importance of the Black Panther film and character before being surprised by Boseman. The same message was repeated in the clip. The impact of seeing ourselves reflected in our heroes.
The film itself surpassed all box office expectations at the time and showed it was possible to make a blockbuster movie led by a predominantly Black cast with white characters reduced to secondary roles usually filled by non-white actors. It is currently the 12th most successful film of all time in terms of box office receipts and according to the movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes it is one of the best reviewed films in history. This demonstrates the importance of seeing ourselves reflected in the things we love, whether that’s music, film or sport. It also shows that subverting accepted practices, such as casting choices in a blockbuster movie, doesn’t have an impact on success.
This week Scottish Rugby released the new kit for the 2020/2021 season using the tag line “The Threads That Bind Us”. The marketing included the usual images of players wearing the kit, including Megan Gaffney wearing the women’s kit. This might not seem “ground breaking” in itself, but Irish Rugby had got itself into a spot of bother the week before by using male players to model the men’s kit and women model’s to model the women’s shirts. Both the IRFU and Canterbury were quite rightly castigated for their choices and apologies and explanations were offered. It sparked a huge reaction on social media under the hashtag #iamenough with women players from the amateur and professional game calling for better representation of women’s rugby players in media and marketing of the game.
The cynical might suggest the SRU caught wind of this and hastily rushed Megan Gaffney into a shirt in time for the promotion. However, the message of “threads that bind us” coupled with the SRU’s diversity action plan show this was an intentional and planned part of the marketing campaign.
Whilst the SRU should be credited with ensuring women’s rugby was represented within the kit launch it is not actually possible to purchase the women’s shirt. Although the design is similar to the men’s kit the sponsor is different as is the fit of the shirt. We all imagined ourselves as our heroes as children, usually by dressing up in a costume, or in the case of sport, wearing our kit. At present there is no way for girls or women (or even men and boys) to dress like their heroes in the women’s team. No opportunity to see themselves reflected in their heroes. Imagine the backlash were Disney to make Spiderman and Captain America costumes but refuse to produce a Black Panther one. This is no different.
If the SRU are serious about diversity and growing the women’s game, then it should take immediate steps to make the women’s shirt available to purchase. Even if they were cautious about doing so from a financial point of view in the current climate, there is nothing stopping them from releasing a limited run to measure demand.
The SRU and Macron should also be credited with the choice to put Black fans front and centre within the marketing. Historically rugby has not been an inclusive sport within Scotland. The early decisions of Edinburgh based clubs to restrict membership to former pupils of private schools probably caused significant long term damage to the sport outside the Borders and limited its expansion compared to association football which was more accessible to the population at large.
The impression of rugby as an elitist sport persists today and the decision to allow fans into Murrayfield for the recent 1872 game before allowing fans into football games has only compounded that view amongst people who don’t follow rugby closely.
Using non-white fans to promote the new kit is an important step in demonstrating that rugby is a sport for all in Scotland but that also has to be backed up with tangible action as well. Whilst it is commendable that the SRU has a diversity action plan, there have been no updates on progress since quarter 2 of 2018, despite a public commitment to providing regular updates on progress.
Scottish Rugby has produced very few players of Black or minority ethnic backgrounds and during the recent Black Lives Matters protests there were no public statements of solidarity from the SRU. The relaunch of the Pro 14 saw players stand in a circular formation before kick off in a “Unity Moment” to underline the message of “Rugby Against Racism”. However, this was not backed by any separate communication or statement from the SRU or Glasgow or Edinburgh other than to repeat the Pro 14s messaging and images. The silence was surprising, especially given the visual statement made in the marketing of the kit a week later.
It is not enough to simply co-opt a message of unity into a marketing campaign. This has to be backed up by tangible actions. This should include improving access to rugby for Black and ethnic minority populations within Scotland be that through schools or clubs. The evidence of whether that is successful will be whether domestic, professional and international teams in Scotland truly start to reflect the communities they represent.
The SRU might start by inducting Alfred Clunies-Ross into the Scottish Rugby Hall Of Fame. Clunies-Ross was the son of John George Clunies-Ross, originally from Shetland and S’pia Dupong from Surakarta in Indonesia. Alfred Clunies-Ross played in the first international rugby match between England and Scotland and was the first non-white international rugby player. That is something worthy of recognition and would be a start in the SRU demonstrating a commitment to celebrating diversity in the Scottish game.
One commenter on social media suggested to me that the SRU don’t need to make any statements on racism because there is no racism in Scotland and it is an American problem. Denying the existence of racism in Scotland is at best ignorant and at worst racist in that it denies the experience of people who have been subjected to abuse and worse in this country. Scotland international, Panashe Muzambe has spoken of her own experiences of racism in Scotland as well as wanting to be a positive role model for others.
Some may question where this is even an issue in Scottish Rugby but there have been recent incidents of players being banned for racial abuse. Even one incident would be too many but the repeated incidents would suggest that this is a live and very real issue that needs to be tackled.
Outside Scotland, prominent Black players have spoken of their experiences of racism and discrimination within rugby and outside it.
Leicester Tigers Zack Henry spoke openly about Black players being pigeon holed into certain positions and Lewis Ludlam and Ellis Genge have repeatedly highlighted instances of being ‘mistaken’ for one another in the press.
Yet despite this a number of high profile people within the game continue to deny there is a problem.
When shocking footage emerged of two British athletes being stopped and searched by the police, former England fly half Andy Goode suggested people should just “comply with what the police are asking them”. Both Ellis Genge and Ashton Hewitt replied pointing out the frustration of being repeatedly stopped by the police with Genge revealing he had been stopped twice within a month.
When Beno Obano spoke about his own experiences of racism and discrimination and the importance of the Rugby Against Racism movement this weekend one prominent white rugby podcaster, who has in the past carried out work with World Rugby, demanded that he provide evidence. Elsewhere a BT pitch side reporter has likened the Black Lives Matter protests to “Maoist struggle sessions”. I’m not including their employers here in an effort to have them “cancelled” but to highlight that these views are not coming from the fringe but exist within the heart of rugby itself.
This is a time for us all to listen and to ask questions of ourselves and others. Some of the questions might be difficult to ask and some of the answers hard to hear. But if we are willing to go through this process from governing bodies right down to domestic clubs we will emerge a stronger and more inclusive sport as a result. If we continue to listen to those that deny there is a problem then rugby will fade into obscurity.