Failure to reprimand Marler risks sending message that discrimination is tolerable

In the past 20 years there has been one issue that every sport has vigorously tried to combat. That issue is discrimination in all its forms, be it racial, gender, class, or sexual orientation.
Some sports are certainly more notorious for this sort of behaviour than others, but it is becoming rarer and rarer in the modern sporting arena. However, last Saturday’s England v Wales encounter at Twickenham has further reinforced that there is still some discrimination that needs to be addressed.

On March 12, rugby fans across the country sat down to watch what would prove to be a Six Nations decider between England and Wales. However the game was somewhat over-shadowed, not by poor Welsh form, but by English prop Joe Marler. At a breakdown Marler called a Welsh player, Samson Lee, a “gypsy boy”, and unluckily for Marler the comments were picked up by the referee’s microphone and broadcast to over 20 million people.

Marler has subsequently not been cited and Lee has come out as saying the whole thing was “a bit of banter”. The question is though, was it just banter, or was this discrimination against the traveller community? The lack of a citing itself could also be considered discrimination. Without a citing, the Six Nations’ board is effectively showing that offensive comments about the traveller community are acceptable.

For instance, Eddie Jones has come out this week saying he has reprimanded Marler, but the fact remains that nothing official has been done. What makes this worse is that the official RFU guideline states that “any verbal abuse of a player based on religion, race, colour, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation or otherwise can carry a minimum sanction of a four-week suspension”. Thus, by not doing anything, the Six Nations’ board have by proxy given the thumbs up to offensive comments to travellers, even when the law says otherwise.

In order to portray how bad this is, we need to compare this incident to other incidents of discrimination.
In 2014, the Welsh rugby international Liam Williams posted a picture on Twitter of himself being “blacked up” as part of his Wilfried Bony costume. Within hours, anti-discrimination charities, organisations and members of the public all heavily criticised Williams’ decision.

A few hours later and the WRFU and Williams’ team, Scarlets, all had released official comments and world rugby was investigating the incident and investigating Williams. All of this happened, even though Williams had contacted Bony beforehand so that he could okay all aspects of the costume – which he did.

“Blacking up” is a bad idea everywhere and is frowned upon, especially in EUSA buildings, but by taking the extra step of getting permission from Bony, Williams showed that he did not do it out of racial hatred or with the intention of causing offence and yet still received major backlash over this event.

Even if Williams’ costume was harmless, the RFU have to tackle racism – it is the law and investigating Williams was the right thing to do. Marler’s comments, on the other hand, have been dismissed by an official board and referred to as ‘banter’ by teammates and friends. Discrimination with regards to the traveller community seems not to be as looked upon as racial discrimination by both officials and the general public.

With sport and discrimination, we have come a long way. There are still incidents but not as many as there were in the 1980s, 1990s or even early 2000s. Incidents like Saturday’s, whether it was ‘banter’ or not, prove we still have a little more to do to end discrimination in sport, but perhaps a good starting point would be to make all types of discrimination as severely dealt with as the others.

Image courtesy of Mik_P

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