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This site is designed to be about Wasps Rugby, and so this post is a bit of a departure. But I feel it is an important subject that affects us all, and so here are my thoughts.
Why what Joe Marler said was racist, but why the IRB was wrong to punish him for it.
Clearly no offense taken
There is a huge amount of discussion currently on the punishment Joe Marler, Harlequins and England Prop has received for calling Samson Lee “Gypsy Boy” during the Six Nations game between England and Wales. I’d like to explain why it is that that comment was indeed inappropriate and racist.
The first point is that the comment was clearly made to provoke Lee. It has been written off as simple “banter” by numerous people, but that in itself makes it clear that Marler was trying to get under Lee’s skin and to generate a response of some kind. So we know that it was designed to be at least a little irritating and potentially upsetting when it was said. But was it racist?
As Lee is a member of the traveller community, a group of people who have a separate identity from the mainstream communities in England and Wales it was certainly referencing his cultural heritage, even if we do not consider being a traveller to be a separate race. And so while it may or may not fit the exact specific defintion of racism as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, it is certainly close enough to fit. But the next question we need to look at is whether referencing someone’s race or heritage is actually insulting.
There are a number of arguments being put forward by Rugby fans who don’t think that what Joe Marler said was worthy of criticism. I’m going to look at them individually.
“Lee wasn’t insulted, so why should we be?”
We have no way of knowing whether this is true or not. It likely is, but I don’t think that is relevant. Even if Lee was insulted by Joe Marler’s comment he is highly unlikely to admit it. He is a top level international rugby player and letting your opposition know that they can potentially gain an edge over you by insulting you is never going to happen. Even if he cried himself to sleep that night (and I stress that I doubt this happened) he would never admit it to the general public, as it would simply be setting himself up for more insulting behaviour. But even if he wasn’t personally offended that doesn’t really matter. What matters with racist behaviour is that it directed at someone because of their race or heritage, and therefore targets everyone of that particular race or heritage. Lee may well not have been offended, but perhaps the young boy who idolises Lee and for the first time ever saw someone from his own background playing rugby at the highest level was offended. Perhaps that young boy will never play rugby now. And so if the comment was indeed insulting then it doesn’t matter whether Lee took personal offense.
“I’m not insulted by being called English”
The implication here is that calling Lee a Gypsy is simply a description, and that as such, it isn’t offensive. This is the subtlest, and the most damaging type of thinking, but sadly seems to be the most common.
Firstly we have already shown that Joe Marler’s comment was designed to get a rise from Lee, why say it otherwise? So if it was indeed just a description how could it get a rise?
Let me try to show you how the context of an insult can be important.
I have two friends, one who has done very well for himself. He did well at school, got a good job, and worked hard. He put money away, and inherited more, and is now in an enviable position. He has a lovely house and drives an Aston Martin. I have another friend who has struggled all his life. He always seemed to be on the wrong end of luck, and ended up declaring himself backrupt. He fought and struggled to get enough money to buy himself a car, it was an old Peugeot 205, rusty and prone to breaking down. But he was proud of it, he’d worked hard to get it, and against all the odds he made it happen.
If I said to my friends that their car was crap one of them would likely laugh it off as banter, the other may well be offended.
The fact is that the comment itself is not the damaging thing. It is the context the comment is made in. To a person who has always had lovely cars, saying their car is crap is water off a duck’s back. But to someone who has had to fight for years to get an unreliable, rusty, old, car and for the first time has managed to get a car they can call their own, it is much much more likely to cause upset.
The traveller community has long been derided as somehow worth less than the normal traditional community in the UK. A quick google search shows words like “sub-human”, “scum”, “in-bred” used to define them. Calling someone a Gypsy is an insult, it carries with it all the connotations that the word has picked up over decades, or even centuries of abuse and derision. To Lee it was a pointed reminder that he was from a lesser group. That he was not of the same worth as Marler. The addition of the word “boy” serves to prove that. Calling a grown man “boy” is always an attempt to demean them. “Gypsy Boy” is an attempt to show Lee he is inferior in every way.
The sad fact is, that a white middle class English man from a mainstream background is in no position to decide if a comment made to another person about their heritage is worthy of causing insult. I’m purposefully stopping short of saying “check your privelege”, but context is key. In this, and every other aspect of potential racism. If you, like me, have grown up in a world where being a white, English, male from a mainstream community, is the best start you could possibly have, and you are part of that group, then it is hard to see things from a different perspective. Important, but hard.
“It’s Political Correctness gone mad”
This is one I find the most annoying. Political correctness is a good thing in the main. It is exactly that that has stopped things like the Conservative Party’s campaign for the Smethwick seat in the general election of 1964 being considered appropriate – google it if you don’t know. I suspect you’ll be surprised.
I’d like to think that as a society we all start from the basic position of wanting to treat others with respect, and to be treated with respect ourselves. And so if some of us have to not use certain words or phrases is that really a big sacrifice to make? I’d suggest it isn’t.
I do not understand the mentality of someone who, after being told that something they have said or done has potentially caused offense, loudly argues for their right to keep doing or saying it.
How does it negatively impact on your life if professional rugby players are not allowed to insult each other in a certain way? Is your enjoyment of the game based purely on the fact that potentially racist insults are allowed? Does the game become less enjoyable if things you dismiss as “banter” are removed? Are beautiful running lines, passes, offloads, and tries not what we care about? Is watching a perfectly timed tackle, or big hit from a running back row forward not enjoyable if we aren’t allowed to also racially abuse the people who are playing?
Racism has massively decreased in day to day life, and that is a good thing. But it has not been eradicated, and that is a bad thing. It is not political correctness gone mad to try to actually eradicate it. And if along the way one or two behaviours that were less insulting than others fall by the wayside too so what?
“Gypsy” may well not be as insulting as “Nigger”, and “Paki” and countless other terms I heard growing up in the 70s, but that does not mean any one of them are acceptable. They are not, and if you are one of the minority who think your right to use such words is more important than the right of others not to be insulted based on their genetic lineage then I suggest that you take a long hard look at your opinions.
Why the IRB was wrong
Rugby prides itself on being based on values of respect and “proper” behaviour. Players are still punished for speaking disrespectfully to the officials (not enough in my opinion), and so that is exactly why the 6N should have punished Joe Marler for what was clearly a lapse in judgement.
But 6 Nations Rugby did not punish Joe Marler. They looked at the situation, saw that he had apologised during the game, saw that he was seemingly contrite and remorseful, and let it go. It was wrong for them to do that, but much as during the game the referee’s word is law and cannot be disputed, that is where it should have stopped.
The IRB have undermined the entire process of discipline in the game. They did it for the right reasons, as the RFU were wrong to not act. But that does not mean they should do so.