Luther Burrell insists rugby needs to respond with actions rather than words after Ugo Monye’s claims that he was racially abused following Exeter Chiefs’ Premiership victory against Gloucester.
Devon & Cornwall Police confirmed on Monday that they were investigating the incident after Monye experienced what he said was “the most blatant racism I’ve seen from a supporter at a live game”.
Burrell’s own allegations that he was the subject of racist abuse by team-mates were found to be true “on balance of probability” by a Rugby Football Union investigation in April, which also found “players had experienced some form of racism” in all forms of elite rugby.
“You can’t call them isolated incidents if they keep happening,” Burrell told Telegraph Sport. “It is abhorrent that Ugo has had to face this. For someone to say this is depressing enough, but for no one in the crowd to pull this person is so disheartening considering what has happened over the past 18-24 months.”
Burrell, the former England centre, says that this is further evidence that “the dial has not shifted” on racism in rugby since the investigation concluded, with two former RFU council members since receiving bans for using racial slurs at England matches at Twickenham. “I think they went under the radar to a degree,” Burrell said. “I felt it was a case of getting this brushed under the carpet as quickly as it possibly can.”
Yet Burrell believes the public nature of Monye’s allegations presents rugby with the opportunity to sincerely embrace change as cricket did following the Azeem Rafiq racism storm. “I have heard a lot about action plans, but we need to ask about how can we be proactive every day, rather than being seen responding to something when it happens,” Burrell said. “We need to progress to that level because if you look at other major sporting institutions their policies are locked in. They are airtight.
‘In football, they have no qualms about handing out lifetime bans’
“I believe that this is a moment in time where the RFU can set a real example of the standards they want to uphold within the sport. The RFU has a real opportunity to set a precedent of what we do not stand for and you have to fall in line with these particular values. If you do not then you are not coming back. In football, they have no qualms about handing out lifetime bans.
“Cricket underwent a huge investigation as the result of racism allegations and now they are having to rewrite the script of grass-roots level cricket. They are now making a conscious effort to change the culture. Rugby is in a different position but I do think for the game to evolve over the next period of time it needs to do something significant to tap into the larger demographic pools.
“Ultimately the foundations of the sport are based upon elitism. That is incontrovertible to me. We need to understand that society is changing so for the sport to fulfil its real potential, we need to go after the 99 per cent who are not in that bracket.”
As the incident happened at a Premiership game, it is Exeter Chiefs who will be responsible for administering any punishment outside of any further police action.
“We have been made aware of an incident which happened on Sunday 19 November at Sandy Park in Exeter,” Supt Antony Hart from Devon and Cornwall Police said. “Our enquiries are currently ongoing into the incident. We take all reports of hate crime extremely seriously and we will not tolerate this behaviour.”
Exeter have offered their “sincerest apologies” to Monye about the incident and in a statement on Monday afternoon stated: “We know that this behaviour is not representative of our fans. Exeter Chiefs have a zero-tolerance policy for behaviour of this kind.”
Yet Burrell says that it is incumbent upon more supporters to act as “allies” by calling out racism when they see it.
“White people are in a better position than someone of colour to actually act upon this,” Burrell said. “When you bear witness to an incident like this then you have to really address it and create a society where everyone has a responsibility to intervene and protect one another.
“We saw what happened with Tom Curry in the World Cup. It is not one way. This is about completely eradicating discrimination within the sport. This is not about being black. It is about combating prejudice in general.”