WhatsNew2Day
Latest News And Breaking Headlines

England star Luther Burrell lays bare rugby union’s racism problem

Our conversation started late last year. A phone call to Luther Burrell asking about racism in rugby was answered right away: ‘It’s widespread.’

It was a stark confession followed by radio silence. What happens in the locker room seemed destined to stay in the locker room.

A few months later, he agreed to meet for an off-the-record dinner. Towards the end of the meal, he pulled out his phone and opened a WhatsApp group chat.

Luther Burrell met Nik Simon to give a brave interview about racism in rugby union

Luther Burrell met Nik Simon to give a brave interview about racism in rugby union

The center earned 15 caps as an England international between 2014 and 2016

The center earned 15 caps as an England international between 2014 and 2016

“Negro,” wrote one player.

“Racist,” replied another.

“Yes,” said the first player.

The next notification showed that another player left the group immediately. “This was three days ago,” he said at the time.

At the time, Burrell was too scared to share his stories outside the dinner table. Unwilling to break the locker room code.

He left to talk to his father, Geoff, who has roots in Jamaica and fought racism in his early years.

“There were also talks with teammates – old, new, black, white – before he agreed to meet in Leeds this week.

We meet at the locks in the center. He orders a cup of coffee for a quick caffeine hit. “I didn’t sleep much last night,” he says.

“I’ve been nervous doing this. It’s a scary subject to broach, isn’t it? I don’t know how it will be received.

“My father asked me yesterday if I was going to do it and said he will support me whatever I decide. He was supposed to come with me, but he’s not well, he’s on dialysis.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said things that probably crossed the line. Naivety, insecurity, wanting to belong, the need to be liked. I’m not proud to admit that, but in the dressing room things are said that should not be said.

“A lot of it doesn’t come from a bad place, but that doesn’t make it right. This is not a witch hunt and I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. Much of what is said is not even malicious, but it has become normal and needs to be addressed.

“My son and daughter, three and five, are mixed race. Would I be happy if they got the same racial “banter” from their friends? Of course not.

“There are countless players in numerous environments who have experienced it. I couldn’t say anything and just carry on, but it has to be talked about.

“Maybe it will empower the next generation to cry out and force change. It’s a touchy subject and I’m afraid how people will receive it, but why should I care in general?

59522581 10953063 image a 30 1656193046187

Burrell speaks out because he ‘wants this conversation to empower younger generation’

‘It is factual. I love our sport and I want to see it progress.”

Burrell has been playing in the professional game since 2006. Since then, the sport has moved on, but as we’ll soon find out, not everyone has gone along with it.

He wants this conversation to empower the younger generation — and it starts with sharing his own experiences.

“You’ve seen some messages. Things are said in jest without thinking about it.

“Every week, every two weeks. Notes on bananas when making a smoothie in the morning. Comments about fried chicken when dining out.

“I’ve heard things you wouldn’t expect twenty years ago. We had a hot day in training and I told one of the guys to up their factor 50. Someone came back and said “You don’t need it, Luth, put on your carrot oil”.

Then another boy jumps in and says, ‘No, no, no, he’ll need it for where his chains were as a slave’.

‘Excuse my language, but what the f***? Where does that come from? Some players shake their heads and others laugh along.

'It's emotional, exhausting, but has to happen': Burrell can't believe racism is this bad in 2022

‘It’s emotional, exhausting, but has to happen’: Burrell can’t believe racism is this bad in 2022

“People greet you like, “What’s up with my n*****?” It’s not ill-intentioned, but when is it going to change? It’s a very, very raw subject. A lot has happened in recent years. That’s the environment.

“It’s normalized because I’ve had it normalized. I would laugh it off. I’ve been a coward by not speaking out.

‘Over the years I have become thicker skinned. You know how long I’ve been thinking about talking about this. I’ll never name names, but it’s taking too long.’

Throughout the evening, Burrell, 32, speaks on the phone with two other black players and provides information about the interview he is doing. They greet him but are reluctant to share their own experience.

‘The young boys aren’t going to say anything, are they? There is seniority in rugby environments. If you’re a 20-year-old, you’re afraid to be told to shut up.

“After a few beers I said, ‘Mate, you need to stop saying that’, but it never changed anything. You just get, “We really love you, mate”.

The ex-England star (back row, third left) played as a youngster in the Huddersfield under-12s

The ex-England star (back row, third left) played as a youngster in the Huddersfield under-12s

“If I were 10 years younger, I wouldn’t be here doing this. You want to belong. You want to be liked.

“All these things go through your mind: If I’m liked by my teammates, do I have a better chance of playing? Rugby is a high testosterone environment with many great personalities.

During his career he played for Northampton Saints, Newcastle Falcons and Sale Sharks

During his career he played for Northampton Saints, Newcastle Falcons and Sale Sharks

“When you’re in that environment, you’re walking on eggshells because you don’t want to get isolated from the crowd.

“Hopefully clubs, coaches, rugby administrators read this and a conversation ensues.

“I’m sure there are clubs that don’t have a problem, but I know it’s wider than just one club. In the real world, in normal workplaces, you have things like HR departments. Rugby has no HR departments.

“I passed things along to my non-rugby friends and they just said, ‘Wow.’ By engaging in conversation, it may enable others to say, ‘Pack it up.’

We stop for dinner and talk about the country’s position in English rugby. He recounts fond memories of playing his last Premiership game at Franklin’s Gardens, before returning to the ongoing conversation. Does he think changing rooms would benefit from more diversity in social classes?

“Rugby definitely has a class problem. Look at the messages Ellis Genge got Sunday morning, calling him a*****.

‘Would Maro Itoje receive the same messages? I don’t know. They come from very different walks of life. Maro comes from a private school and ticks many of the traditional rugby boxes.

59520485 10953063 image a 31 1656193060061

The 32-year-old said: “People greet you like, ‘What’s up my n*****?” When will it change?’

“Ellis is a boy from the community. Are there many Ellis Genges in the league? I don’t think there are. When I was on the England team, Kyle Eastmond was the only person with a similar upbringing to me and he walked away from the game at age 31.

‘How many professional rugby players got lunch tickets at school because their mother made less than eight grand?

“I grew up on a municipal estate in Huddersfield, my parents worked extremely hard and I didn’t get any freebies. Is this kind of stuff thrown in football locker rooms? No, because it is much more diverse.

“I remember going to dinner parties in Twickenham after the game and feeling uncomfortable being always asked which school I went to. You would feel judged. Now I look back and I wouldn’t care.

“No one can take anything away from what I’ve done. Only around the suits, the blazers, I felt I didn’t fit. I had no similarities with those guys. I felt out of place, like I had to be something I wasn’t. Sometimes that persona worked in my favor because it would open doors for you.

‘You see the rugby culture and you see the cricket culture. They are a very similar class; boys from these nutrition schools. The stuff that came out of cricket last year didn’t surprise me.

‘Where do I think it went wrong? It has just become the norm. I’m not going to sit here and say we need to get more black people in or whatever. The change has to come from within, but it won’t happen overnight. You have to plant the seed.

The Huddersfield-born England international scored three tries during the 2014 Six Nations

The Huddersfield-born England international scored three tries during the 2014 Six Nations

“The messages are not there at the moment because people don’t know what is going on. People don’t talk about it.’

After possibly playing his last game in English rugby, Burrell is now more confident in finding his voice. Perhaps his next move is to Japan. Perhaps he will become an advocate for social change.

“We’re discussing the future — jokingly that he might get a role on the RFU board — before giving a final thought on the evening’s theme.

“I’ll tell you what’s funny,” he says. “All the black people I spoke to about this said, ‘Yeah, do it.’

Every week, every two weeks. Notes on bananas when making a smoothie in the morning. Comments about fried chicken when dining out.

“The whites were all supportive, but they said things like, ‘Ooh, don’t you want to settle your next contract first?” If that’s the attitude, then I don’t want a contract with those clubs.

“When I spoke to my father about this, he was disappointed. He wasn’t quite sure how to take it. My father is someone who calmly does his thing.

“He told me about his experiences with racial prejudice from long ago and we both want things to change.

“I want to look back 15 years from now with my old team-mates from Northampton and see how far the game has progressed. My son is three years old and has already told me that he wants to be a rugby player. Maybe my daughter does too.

Burrell, who is of Jamaican descent, knows he would regret not speaking out about racism

Burrell, who is of Jamaican descent, knows he would regret not speaking out about racism

“I want their experience to be a lot better than mine because my path hasn’t always been easy.

“It’s mental that we’re having this conversation here in 2022. It’s mental, emotional, exhausting, but it has to be done. If someone said those things to you on the street, you’d knock their head off.

“I know if I don’t do this, I’ll look back and regret it. I still have rugby in me and I’m excited about what comes next, but when I retire I want to walk away with my head held high.”

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More