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Can rugby league do any more to tackle racism?

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4th May, 2021

I’m sorry, I really am. I wanted to do a puff piece this week about which NRL side a newcomer should support, and I promise it’ll come.

But the spectre of racism and abuse continues to abate the game, and society.

I’m sick of hearing these stories and writing about them. I’m sure you’re sick of reading about it, too, when all you want to do is crack on and focus on the on-field action.

So, imagine how gut wrenchingly awful it is to live through it.

Yesterday, Wigan’s Tony Clubb was charged with a Grade F offence for allegedly racially abusing Hull FC’s Andre Savelio.

This came in the same broadcast that former Ireland international Brian Carney attacked the “nationalistic fervour” of national team manager Shaun Wane’s quoted preference for English-born players.

It also came a day before a coordinated UK-wide sporting boycott of social media channels over online abuse.

Such incidents are not reflective or caused by rugby league. They are reflective on society, amplified by the audience that the sport has.

The action Latrell Mitchell has taken in kicking out (not like that) against internet trolls is a signal of shifting willingness and forthrightness in combating the issue.

Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker

(Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)

But all of these actions to target hate in sport is akin to taking on the Lernaean Hydra. Every time you cut off the head of a hate-filled imbecile, two more grow back.

It’s an issue that I’m resigned to never seeing fully rectified in my lifetime.

I recently joined Twitter (@sceptical_bunny, if you fancy taking a pot-shot) to try and observe this phenomenon digitally, and it’s fair to say the results were…interesting.

Individuals doubting whether referring to someone’s ethnicity in a derogatory manner was indeed racist (answer: yes, it is), abuse thrown at those who dare to point out the racism inherent in the English game and any measure, no matter how inconsequential, to tackle it.


There has been the constant undermining of nationality and identity surrounding the Polynesian nations.

There were Newcastle Knights ‘fans’ telling Dom Young, after a debut in which he didn’t set the world on fire, to “go back to where he came from” (something with horrible connotations at the worst of times, and quite sickening for a man who has put his hand up for Jamaica and with the current stringency of Australia’s borders).

I’m not diminishing the great strides made by the game. Rugby league can be proud of its drive for Indigenous inclusivity and acknowledgement, while the sport gave Britain its first ever black national captain and coach.

But the crux of the matter comes down to the fact that these incidents are happening not because of rugby league inaction.

Rather, it is happening in spite of the will to punish and eradicate racism.

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And that’s the point.

The title of this piece may be ambiguous, but it’s very hard to see what more could be done.

It’s no good saying there’s no room for racism in the game when the society in which it exists thinks and acts differently.

This is not a dig at Australia – England is just as guilty. Nor is it a personal indictment on individuals.

Shaming, as per public health, is no way to seek societal improvements. One of the few avenues left could involve not ostracisation of racist individuals, but re-education.

Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs looks on

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)


Distasteful as it might be, reaching out to those who sent the abuse to Latrell Mitchell, educating them as to why their actions were so heinous, could lead to better long-term results and harmony than simply banning the problem and hoping it goes away.

But we’re reaching a point that it’s no longer useful to expect the governing bodies to fight racism.

Beyond punishments and education, there’s not much more than could be done.

The racism experienced in rugby league in England and Australia has typical English and Australian characteristics to their own episodes – it is not signified by any rugby league characteristics.

Raising our expectations does no one any good, and leaves wider civil organisations (schools, family, friendship groups, media, etc.) off-the-hook for what should ultimately be a societal responsibility.

I promise I’ll be back to more light-hearted, on-the-field matters next.

But this is simply too important to ignore or brush under the carpet.