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The Roar


'I am really sorry': Leniu cops HUGE ban as NRL judiciary hands down verdict for ‘monkey’ racial abuse at Mam

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11th March, 2024
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Roosters prop Spencer Leniu has been banned for eight matches after the NRL judiciary handed down its verdict on Monday night for racially abusing Broncos five-eighth Ezra Mam.

His lengthy suspension means he will be unavailable until Round 10 when the Roosters host the Warriors on May 12 and he avoids taking on the Broncos in what will surely be a spicy rematch the previous week in Brisbane.

The former premiership-winning Panthers forward appeared at Rugby League Central with Roosters officials after pleading guilty to the charge from the controversial incident in the 68th minute of their Las Vegas win over the Broncos. 

NRL legal counsel Lachlan Gyles called on the judiciary to suspend Leniu for eight matches while the prop’s representative, James McLeod, argued that a four-match ban would be sufficient because “there was no racial intent”.

“That puts it in the medium category of contrary conduct,” McLeod said. “He was genuine, he was honest in his very poor use of a word but not one that was made on racial intent.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 02: Spencer Leniu of the Roosters rusn the ball during the round one NRL match between Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos at Allegiant Stadium, on March 02, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Spencer Leniu in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“He made a really bad mistake, one that has caused pain and hurt, but it wasn’t motivated by race.”

Leniu initially tried to play down the incident when he called Indigenous star Mam a “monkey” during the NRL’s season-opening double-header in the US.


He then issued an apology after returning to Australia but it was not enough to prevent him becoming the first player banned by the NRL for a racial slur in 19 years.

The panel was headed by judiciary chairman Geoff Bellew at the NRL’s Moore Park headquarters with former international Bob Lindner and ex-referee Sean Hampstead the other members.

Leniu claimed at the hearing that he was unaware of racial connotations for the term monkey.

“At the time I thought it was one brown man saying something to another brown man. The use of words is so common.

“I was making a tackle on Payne Haas. Ezra Mam said something to me at the time and that’s when I said ‘fuck up, monkey’. I am so sorry that I used that word I said that to Ezra and that I made him feel little. This game happens so fast and in that split second I said a word I didn’t know the meaning to,” he said.


“I didn’t know how much that word means to the Indigenous community, Ezra and his family. When I had that interview post-match, honestly, in that time, I didn’t think I did anything wrong and that’s why I said ‘it was all fun and games’.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 02: Spencer Leniu (r) of the Roosters exchanges heated words with Kotoni Staggs of the Broncos during the round one NRL match between Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos at Allegiant Stadium, on March 02, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Spencer Leniu exchanges heated words with Kotoni Staggs. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“At that time, I just thought it was one grown man sledging another grown man. Just how we use that language towards one another, with all the people in my circle, all that stuff is so common.

“I didn’t know how much that word meant to Ezra and to all the Indigenous people in the game.

“I strongly believe there is no room for racism in this game and I’m happy he brought it up. I had no racial intent toward Ezra and especially toward the Indigenous community. I love his people and I love what they stand for. 

“I really am sorry to Ezra and his people. I can’t believe I used that word but i really didn’t mean it.”

Gyles asked Leniu if he was aware of incidents such as those involving Adam Goodes at the Sydney Swans, or other racial incidents involving references to monkeys or apes.


When Leniu said he was not, Gyles suggested to Leniu that “most people who have been in Australia for 15 years would know it would ordinarily be racism to call someone a monkey”.

“It is beyond argument that in Australia in 2024, calling an Indigenous person a monkey does constitute racial abuse, and racial abuse of a very serious nature,” Gyles said.

Roosters CEO Joe Kelly said after the hearing all players and staff would be put through an education program, while his NRL counterpart praised the response of Mam.

Acting NRL Chief Executive Officer Andrew Abdo

Andrew Abdo. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

“I have spoken to Ezra to commend him for speaking up and taking a stand,” NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said. “It has been warming to see the game rally around him during this time.

“I also acknowledge Spencer Leniu’s genuine remorse and apology and ask everyone to consider his wellbeing after a testing time in his young career. We are human beings and we make mistakes. That is how we all learn and grow.”

Mam was not required to attend the hearing, with pre-written statements instead submitted to help the NRL determine a ban for the Sydney Roosters recruit.


Gyles read out an excert from the 12-paragraph Mam statemen but said the Broncos young gun had asked for eight paragraphs to remain confidential due to the sensitive nature of their contents.

“On about the 68th minute of the game Spencer Leniu tackled Payne Haas. I saw Spencer Leniu at marker and I recall saying the words to the effect of ‘run it back at Spencer’ as Payne was playing the ball.

“I then recall Spencer Leniu saying the words ‘fuck up, you monkey. At this point I was so angry and saw red after that… my mind was no longer focused on the game.”

There had been a thought last week that Mam and other Brisbane players could also attend either in person or virtually, if the league needed their accounts of what was said at Allegiant Stadium.

But Leniu’s plea has meant that was not required.

Broncos teammates Payne Haas and Billy Walters also submitted statements.


The panel took into account Leniu’s guilty plea when considering the ban, which reduces punishments by 25 per cent.

Leniu issued a public apology to Mam last week but the Brisbane playmaker rejected his offer of a face-to-face meeting so the Samoan international could further express his remorse.

The NRL’s judiciary has not dealt with a racism scandal in the past decade, with Paul Gallen the last player found guilty of such an act on the field.

He was fined $10,000 in 2009, and he issued a public apology and stood down as Cronulla captain.

Before him, Bryan Fletcher was suspended for one match in 2005 for a racial slur, for which he also apologised and stood down as South Sydney captain.

More recently, Tyrone Peachey accused Mitchell Barnett of a racial slur in 2020, but the NRL’s integrity unit could not uncover conclusive evidence of the comment when reviewing audio and vision of the game.


The judiciary did hand down a four-match ban for a homophobic comment made by Warriors winger Marcelo Montoya in 2022, in the only comparable offence of recent times.

In the AFL, Adelaide forward Taylor Walker was banned for six matches for a racial slur in 2021.

However, that incident did not relate to a match the Crows star was playing in, but rather as he watched an SANFL game in Adelaide.