The Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby have apologised to Luther Burrell after the former England centre said racism was “rife” in the sport.
In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, the 32-year-old – who has played for clubs including Leeds, Sale, Northampton and Newcastle, plus Warrington in rugby league – spoke about dressing room “racial banter” that has “become normal” and “needs to be addressed”, including receiving comments about bananas, fried chicken and slavery and being greeted with a racial slur.
Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the RFU, said in a statement: “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. 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.”
Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, Simon Massie-Taylor, said: “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. While 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.”
Recounting his experiences, Burrell told the Mail: “Things get said in jest without any thought. Every week, every fortnight. Comments about bananas when you’re making a smoothie in the morning. Comments about fried chicken when you’re out for dinner.
“I’ve heard things that you wouldn’t expect to hear 20 years ago. We had a hot day at training and I told one of the lads to put on their factor 50. Someone came back and said: ‘You don’t need it, Luth, put your carrot oil on.’
“Then another lad jumps in and says: ‘No, no, no, he’ll need it for where his shackles were as a slave’. Excuse my language but, what the f***? Where does that come from? Some players shake their head and others laugh along with it.
“People greet you as: ‘What’s up my n*?’ It’s not meant in a bad way but when is it going to change? It’s a very, very raw subject. Over the past few years, it’s happened a lot. That’s the environment.”
Burrell said he will “never name names but it’s gone on for too long”, and expressed his hope that speaking out would lead to change.
He said: “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. It needs to be spoken about. Maybe it will empower the next generation to call it out and force change.”