Johnny Watterson: World Rugby failing in their duty to confront racism
World governing body dragging their heels in tepid response to Argentinian tweets
Argentina’s captain Pablo Matera sits on reserve players benches before the Tri-Nations match between Australia and Argentina in Sydney. Photograph: David Gray/AFP/Getty
Rugby still isn’t getting it. Really. Is it? As the timeline inexorably moves towards the New Year and other urgencies arise, the kernel of what the world governing body uttered about the racist tweets of Argentina’s Guido Petti, Santiago Socino and captain Pablo Matera was a far from stinging rebuke of over a week ago.
“World Rugby is currently seeking a better understanding of the process being undertaken by the UAR and its status and looks forward to receiving a full update.”
Straight from the Sir Humphrey playbook. Of course, there was a Rugby World Cup draw to be conducted so a ‘holding’ phrase of little merit served its purpose to put clean air between bigotry and Blue Riband.
The reminder this week of Matera’s episodic fantasy in Tweets of wanting to run over black people in his car came from cricket, when Shane Warne, one of the best spin bowlers that ever played but no global diplomat, referred to Indian batsman Cheteshwar Pujara as ‘Steve’.
The story of ‘Steve’ is enlightening but not uplifting. First up, every team everywhere doles out nicknames and whether you like the hair shaming or the time keep shaming or the personality shaming, the nickname sticks. It’s a way of levelling. Even the captain gets one. But it’s not always just banter.
‘Steve’ arose this week with commentator Warne on Fox Sports after former Yorkshire captain Azeem Rafiq filed a legal complaint earlier this month against the English club, claiming direct discrimination and harassment on the grounds of race.
Two former Yorkshire employees, Taj Butt and Tony Bowry, had recently provided evidence against the club claiming it has institutionalised racism. Butt, who was employed within the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation as a community development officer, explained.
“They called every person of colour ‘Steve.’ Even Cheteshwar Pujara, who joined as an overseas professional, was called Steve because they could not pronounce his name.”
Pujara was quoted by ESPN in 2018.
“Jack Brooks started off with this. He couldn’t pronounce my first name so he was asking me what nickname do I have. I said ‘I don’t have any’. So, they said, ‘we will start calling you Steve.’”
The problem with Steve is that it became routine. Players became so familiar and comfortable with the slur that it wove its way into the cultural fabric. The players could pronounce Cheteshwar if they had wanted to. But there was no need. Because the drill from privileged county athletes, in their largely white team and their white culture had little to do with pronunciation.
It was about messaging the Indian player that he was an Indian, that he was something entirely different to them. It was about letting him know that his name was foreign and odd-sounding and that his culture was unimportant. So, they gave him an English name.
There is a scene in the old television series, Roots, a saga on slavery, where a white American owner is whipping a black man in the Waller plantation. The white man, in trying to strip the slave of his Mandinka heritage is screaming at him between the lashes “your name is Toby”, the name the ‘owner’ had given him. The bloodied African, defiant and not about to renounce who he is cries ‘My name is Kunta Kinte’.
And so it goes. An Indian cricketer of international fame, Cheteshwar Pujara, is given a latter-day slave name.
On Matera former England centre Will Greenwood and Ireland’s Simon Zebo were most articulate.
“I have the team-sheet in front of me, he was 27-years-old at the weekend, which means he was 19-years-old when these Tweets were going out, fully aware and a grown adult,” said Greenwood demolishing the Argentinean ‘stupid kids’ defence. Some of Matera’s Tweets were seven years old, when they came to light.
Zebo, a target of racist taunts more than any other Irish rugby player, voiced his genuine hurt at the nakedly violent tone. Like others, he was both bemused and offended by the return of Matera to the captaincy 48 hours after he had been removed, a sequence of events strongly smelling of locker room intervention. Did the team force Matera’s reinstatement?
“Hiding your racism, I think that’s very prominent in this day and age. A lot of people are just closet racists,” said Zebo.”It wasn’t exactly a slip of the tongue. That’s literally one of the worst things you can say, or, one of the worst mentalities you can have.
“But the more disappointing thing would be World Rugby, that it took them two weeks to say something. They said they were investigating or trying to find out [what happened]. But the Tweets are there, black and white. You look at them, you read them. Surely they’ve had dialogue with the UAR before this.”
Maybe World Rugby are acting behind the scenes. But that doesn’t cut it. Giving a public, dissenting voice to the bigot mindset is a critical aspect of tackling it. The lack of ownership in the matter doesn’t just express an absence of duty of care for the sport’s non-white members like Zebo and Bundee Aki, it does much more damage.
Like ‘Steve’ doing nothing locks bigotry into the system. Argentina’s ‘Steve’ is here and now. World Rugby have an opportunity not to allow it be institutionalised. What people rightly wonder is whether they are strong enough to take it.