Luther Burrell: Former England centre says racism is ‘rife’ in rugby union
Former England centre Luther Burrell has said he wants to “empower younger generations” after detailing his experiences of racism in rugby union.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Burrell, 32, said racism is “rife” in the sport and racist “banter” has become “normalised” among team-mates.
The former Northampton player said he has been on the receiving end of comments about slavery and bananas.
“Things are said in the changing room that shouldn’t be said,” Burrell said.
“A lot of it doesn’t come from a bad place but that doesn’t make it OK. This isn’t a witch hunt and I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. A lot of what’s said isn’t even malicious, but it’s become normal and it needs to be addressed.
“My son and daughter, three and five, are mixed race. Would I be happy with them getting the same racial ‘banter’ from their friends? Of course not.
“There are numerous players in numerous environments who have experienced it. I could say nothing and carry on as normal, but it needs to be spoken about.”
Burrell, who won 15 caps for England between 2014 and 2016, added: “Maybe it will empower the next generation to call it out and force change. It’s a touchy subject and I’m scared how people will receive it, but in the grand scheme of things why should I care?
“It’s factual. I love our sport and I want to see it move forwards.”
Burrell, who made his professional debut in 2006, also played for Leeds and Sale and was released by Newcastle at the end of last season. He has switched codes to rugby league in 2019 to play for Warrington Wolves.
In the Mail interview he says he will “never name names but it’s gone on for too long”.
Discussing WhatsApp messages he has received from team-mates and comments made at training, including being called by a racially offensive term, he adds: “Things get said in jest without any thought. I’ve heard things that you wouldn’t expect to hear 20 years ago.
“It’s normalised because I allowed it to become normalised. I’d laugh it off. I’ve been a coward by not speaking up.
“When you’re in that environment, you’re treading on eggshells because you don’t want to become segregated from the group.
“Hopefully clubs, coaches, directors of rugby read this and it starts a conversation.”
RFU ‘disturbed’ by revelations
Rugby Football Union (RFU) chief executive Bill Sweeney said he had spoken to Burrell and the governing body was “disturbed” and “apologised” for his experiences.
“We are disturbed that this has been Luther’s experience and we applaud him for speaking out, racism in any walk of life is not acceptable,” Sweeney said in a statement.
“I have had a conversation with Luther to see if we can learn from his experience and possibly work with him as an advocate of change. Inclusion and diversity is at the heart of our strategy and we want to improve education and awareness across our game.
“We apologise to Luther and all of those who have experienced any form of discrimination and will continue to work to eliminate it from our game.”
Simon Massie-Taylor, Premiership Rugby chief executive, added: “We applaud Luther for speaking out on this subject but it is saddening to hear some of the language and attitudes he has been exposed to.
“I have spoken with Luther to apologise for what he has experienced and to offer support.
“Whilst there is a lot of positive activity in the area of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion this is a reminder of how far we still need to go.”
‘Rugby has a class issue’
Burrell referred to cricket’s racism problems, which emerged after former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq said English cricket was “institutionally” racist.
Burrell also said rugby has a “class issue”, having himself grown up on a council estate in Huddersfield, and said he had not encountered many players with a similar background to him.
“You see the rugby culture and you see the cricket culture,” he added. “They’re a very similar class; guys from these feeder schools. The stuff that came out of cricket last year recently didn’t surprise me.
“Where do I think it’s gone wrong? It’s just become the norm. I’m not going to sit here and say we need more black people on boards or whatever. The change has to come from within, but it won’t happen overnight. You need to plant the seed.”
In 2021, the RFU launched an independent diversity and inclusion advisory group which will “shape plans” and “challenge the RFU on its progress” in the area.
The group is chaired by former England wing Ugo Monye, with England World Cup winner and current Wasps Ladies director of rugby Giselle Mather the vice-chair.
Monye shared the article on Burrell and tweeted: “Unfortunately a familiar tale with some uncomfortable truths.”
Recently, British and Irish Lions and England forward Maro Itoje said rugby union can do more to increase diversity in the sport.
While in February 2021 Monye claimed Premiership Rugby “does not care enough” about racism in the sport and said a Rugby Against Racism initiative was “lip service”.
Earlier this month he said rugby union must tackle its “heavy drinking” and “laddish” culture to become fully inclusive.