Rugby & Racism
By our own master of social media, Sarah Penney.
This week whilst scrolling through Twitter, I came across a tweet from a young man called George Mbofana which read ‘I’ve turned gay during lockdown apparently.’ Attached to the tweet were screenshots of WhatsApp messages exchanged between him and his fellow rugby players. They were based in Pontarddulais, a mere 20 minutes from where I grew up. George asked his teammates if they were allowed to train on the field yet due to the crisis and one of them replied with ‘Any time. #BlackLivesMatter.’ After members of the group laughed, called it a ‘class joke’ and told him that all lives mattered, George responded with ‘All lives matter, but it ain’t your kid that’s going to be growing up like this’, followed by examples of the comments he’s experienced growing up as a young black man. After his honest message to his ‘friends’ on how he felt, one of them replied ‘Have you turned gay in this lockdown or something?’
I grew up in a village called Skewen, in South Wales, with a population of 8,500 people. More specifically, in a council estate called Caewathan – Google it right now. The first picture is our community centre with its barbed gates, and the following two are photos of the police attending a murder investigation. Our house was lovely, my mam kept it so, but we had to stay in one year during the summer, because one of the lads up the road threw water balloons with bleach in them, and the family who lived there before us grew cannabis in my childhood bedroom.
Generally speaking, our village was very, very white – the only people of colour that I can remember ran the local video shop and I would go in and choose my blockbuster for the weekend and pick up some popcorn for the return journey home. Cinematic, teenage bliss.
At school, there was only one person of colour in my year. Obsession with her hair and where she ‘came from’ filled the school playground. It makes me feel sick, as it did then, the taste metallic in my mouth. The adults I was surrounded by made jokes about people who were black and, when I was 16 years old, the local rugby team took on some new recruits and my little town was less than happy about it. I remember hearing one of my friend’s dads say that the worst thing you can be is ‘black or queer’ and that still rings in my head at night sometimes as I fall asleep.
Homophobia and racism in rugby and sport in general is still rife. Tucked away in working class Welsh villages, snuggled between the rugged hills that spread across the country lies over 200 rugby clubs. Dragons’ wing player Ashton Hewitt recently spoke out to BBC Sports Wales about his own experiences of racism after his fellow sportsman, Welsh sprinter Sam Gordon, was told on Twitter that he ‘doesn’t look Welsh.’ This is nothing new in my country’s sports, and it’s fucking painful.
There seems to be a bravado of Welsh valley men – the need to be seen as ‘a real man,’ and the thought of being sensitive or vulnerable is a truly foreign concept. Sensitivity and tact are thrown out of the window, with gestures of ‘banter’ passed to other men in a contest of whose balls are the biggest – but not everyone is in on the joke. It is toxic masculinity distilled into its purest form and the taste is fucking bitter and desperate. Over the past few years, the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ has become a catchall explanation for male violence and sexism, but it also includes racism and homophobia. The idea that if your friend doesn’t like you taking the piss out of their skin colour makes them queer, and the fact that your friend doesn’t like you taking the piss out of their queerness makes them queer, and round and round in these pointless, head-spinning, never-ending circles we go.
In Wales, our communities are joined together in harmony historically by three things: song, poetry and rugby. (I’m also gonna argue here that my Nanna’s Welsh cakes have put the entire world to rights on more than one occasion.)
The feeling in the air after your team scores the winning try, the feeling of the elastic digging into your head after wearing a daffodil around your entire face at a game, buying the opposing team pints in the pub afterwards as a consolation (but only Welsh beer, mind you) and singing our national anthem at the top of our lungs, wandering down Chippy Alley in Cardiff, covered in chip shop curry sauce and drowning in elation. Rugby is electrifying – but it seems that there has been a shift recently. What once built strong communities, these friendly games followed by a pint in the rugby club, has turned into a race war and we cannot, we MUST NOT let this go. Right now, rugby is tearing our communities apart, and I’m angry.
In the Welsh national anthem, the lyrics ‘Ei gwrol ryfelwyr, gladgarwyr tra mâd, tros ryddid gollasant eu gwaed’ translate to ‘her brave warriors, fine patriots, shed their blood for freedom.’ And so now, on we go.
Our communities need us. People of colour need us. The future of rugby needs us.
It’s time to protest. It’s time to fight for equality and it’s time to fight for freedom.
Write to your local rugby club. Write to your local MP. Write to anyone that will listen, and to those that won’t. All lives can’t matter until black lives do, and rugby can’t matter if the same team is playing for different sides.
Here are links to some resources. Please read them.
The future is calling, and it needs your voice.
George Mbofana’s tweet:
Race, racism and participation in sport:
Anti-racist resources, books, Instagram accounts, films and tv shows:
Black Lives Matter, write to your MP:
Sarah pictured here in traditional Welsh dress.