Racism, respect and war in rugby

Racism, respect and war in rugby

The accusation that Bongi Mbonambi directed racist language at an England player reminds us that we should not cheapen the dangers of racism in sport. (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

The Springboks’ three one-pointer wins, in three weeks, before lifting the Rugby World Cup for an unprecedented fourth time, was freaky. Equally bizarre, although less successful, was England player Tom Curry’s accusation that Springbok Bongi Mbonambi had thrown a racial slur at him during the semi-final. 

The ugly head of the adder in the heart of sport was raised: “Is racass, is racass!” our unofficial world champion comedian, Trevor Noah, passionately insists when he impersonates commander-in-chief Julius Malema. Curry ever so politely addressed referee Ben O’Keeffe as “Sir” and asked what he should do “if their hooker calls me a white cunt”. In a tight semi-final a referee has a lot on his plate. O’Keeffe responded: “Nothing please.”

In a dignified short and sweet statement the South African Rugby Union condemned racism, recorded Bongi’s denial and said that no further comment would follow. World Rugby speedily investigated what they called “the alleged use of discriminatory language”. Discrimination is already a step below racism. Because of insufficient evidence, the matter was closed. No wonder. Currie’s use of the “if” word made it unclear whether he had been abused, or was just requesting advice in advance, in case it should happen. Which word of the two-word slur World Rugby might have found to be discriminatory, if proven, is also unclear. The colour of Curry’s skin, or of his England outfit, comes to mind, as also sex, gender and male chauvinism. England Rugby expressed its disappointment with the decision. They did not say whether they regarded the evidence as sufficient, or were able to find more, somehow, somewhere.

The debate and explanations that followed fuelled numerous jokes, mostly focusing on the possibility that Bongi, in rainbow team Afrikaans, referred to the wide, or white, side (“kant”) of the play at that point. It would be strange if he uttered a very personal insult in open play. Like lightning fast fist in the face, or finger in the eye, in the old days before many referees, cameras and cards, it should best be delivered close-up, in the private violent darkness of a scrum, ruck, or

…. to be continued
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