Simon Zebo says the racist epithet hurled at him from the crowd when his French club Racing 92 played Ulster a few weeks ago in Belfast has been part of a pattern of racism in his life that he has had to face.
Without glossing over the fact, the Irish winger says that he has become “bulletproof” to abuse.
In a dismaying admission, Zebo added that he has suffered so many racist comments growing up in Ireland that he has almost become immune to them..
For that reason he did not walk off the pitch at Kingspan Stadium in the manner footballer Kevin Prince-Boateng did playing in Italy several years ago. AC Milan’s Boateng kicked the ball into the crowd having been subjected to racist abuse and walked to the sideline.
“I parked that no problem. It was in the first-half and after I scored my try,” said Zebo. “It’s water off a duck’s back. I’d be bulletproof with that stuff. I dealt with that all my life growing up with children and teenagers and stuff.”
The 28-year-old old added that because of his profile in Irish and French rugby where there are many mixed race players as well as his sense of responsibility to his children, he could not let the incident pass.
“Yeah, it’s so, so stupid. It was just to not accept it and turn a blind eye to it. That would have eaten me up – if I hadn’t said something about it. I was obviously trying to defend myself. But my kids will be privy to Google and all that stuff when they are older and I don’t want them to see bad stuff without me taking a stand on it.”
Ulster, who have Enniskillen's Irish-Senegalese winger Robert Baloucoune playing for them, caught and banned the spectator for life following the Zebo complaint, which he aired on Twitter.
Do you want to share exactly what was said, Zebo was asked.
“No, no, no,” he answered. “I won’t say it. If I say it some people might say, ‘oh, that’s actually alright’ or ‘that’s a disgrace’ and that’s another headache that I don’t need.”
“A light was shone on it for a little bit and people were aware and some people were disgusted. It just freshened people’s minds as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. In any walk of life that kind of thing is not acceptable, not just in rugby or sport.
“It would be interesting to see if a person like that had the balls to come up to somebody’s face and say it. That’s the difference. It’s a cowardly act, a cowardly move.”
Zebo, who said he probably won’t attend Ireland’s match against England on Saturday preferring to spend time with family, explained that the racial abuse he suffered as an adolescent occurred on the streets, not the pitch. Belfast was the first time he experienced it at a rugby match.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an issue in rugby,” he said. “I’ve never dealt with anything like that before in my life, in rugby from under-five, -six and -eight, really up until a couple of weeks ago. I never felt a presence of that in rugby and I hope that was just a once-off and nobody has to go through that because it’s silly. Especially as Ulster have another winger [Baloucoune] playing who has the same skin tone as me.”
In a bizarre twist the player was then accused by NI Assembly member Mike Nesbitt of being ageist. Zebo explained that the comments in Belfast were hurtful because the racism he previously endured was largely from kids, while in Belfast it was from an "elderly man, like 40-plus", which pushed Nesbitt on to social media.
“First and foremost Simon Zebo should not have been abused by the Ulster fan who shouted something inappropriate – but Zebo shouldn’t describe him as “an elderly man, like 40-plus”. Ageism, racism, both wrong,” Tweeted Nesbitt without explaining where he saw prejudice or discrimination.
“I wouldn’t take too much notice of what that fella said. I think he got enough backlash off of that, so there’s no need for me to stick it to him anymore,” said Zebo.
“I didn’t mean any harm by what I was trying to say. I was trying to describe something that was an emotional topic. If I didn’t convey my words the correct way I didn’t think it would be picked up in such a cynical manner.”
More positively Zebo added, while he didn't think omission by Joe Schmidt from the Ireland squad would be as "blunt and cold" as it has been, he said his contract in France will end in two years, when he will be 30-years-old.
Pointing out that there are players including Johnny Sexton, Rory Best and Rob Kearney older 30-years-old and still playing for Ireland, an optimistic Zebo added: "I would be too young to close the door."