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A lack of representation, careless comments and ‘racial banter’ – how this sport is facing up to its diversity issues

Rugby players Sadia Kabeya and Ashton Hewitt have spoken out about their experiences with race in their sport. (Photo Illustration by Jason Lancaster/CNN/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

By Sam Joseph, CNN

(CNN) — Elite sport can be a lonely and unforgiving place. Just ask Black rugby player and England international Sadia Kabeya, who says a lack of cultural and ethnic diversity in her sport took a toll on her identity.

“As a young girl just wanting to impress, I think I kind of just suppressed a lot of the feelings that I was having,” she told CNN Sport in an interview. “When I look back to those days now, I realize I was completely changing myself to try and fit in.”

A 2023 report commissioned by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) – the sport’s governing body in England – the Premiership Rugby (PRL) and Rugby Players Association (RPA) found that a “sense of belonging is not universal while the perceived need to assimilate, as well as being stereotyped, exists, particularly for players of color,” according to the RFU.

“When I first got into rugby, I was surrounded by people who looked like me and I was playing my friends from school, so I was just playing for the fun of it,” said Kabeya as she reflected on what she called rugby’s “White, middle-class origins.”

“It wasn’t until I started to take it more seriously and go outside of school when I kind of realized the diversity challenges.”

Kabeya, whose England side recently won every game in the Six Nations to achieve a grand slam, first played professionally with club side Richmond Women in southwest London.

“I found myself changing the slang I use, like code-switching a lot unintentionally,” she said.

Kabeya joined the team in 2019 and said that she was one of “four non-White players” in a Richmond “squad of around 30” women at the time.

She explained that she would change the music she listened to in fear of people at the club “turning their noses up.”

CNN has reached out to Richmond for a response to Kabeya’s comments.

The realization that she had changed as a person did not hit home until the height of Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Kabeya said.

“For young girls who are coming in and are looking for role models … when you’re used to being around people who you have cultural similarities with, you look the same as, you listen to the same music as – when all of a sudden that starts to disappear, that can definitely be off-putting,” explained Kabeya, who now plays for Loughborough Lightning in England.

Representation matters

A 2020 report by Sport England showed that the participation share of White British adults in rugby union was more than 90%, 8.2% higher than the national population share. At the grassroots level, White British children aged 5-16 are overrepresented in rugby, while children in that age group from all other ethnic backgrounds are underrepresented.

A lack of diversity in the sport in England is also reflected in the demographics of rugby audiences. The RFU found in 2022 that 87.8% of rugby followers living in England were White, though White people make up 81.3% of the English population.

The report also found that “English rugby is not immune to systemic racism, and has a specific problem with classism due to the historic associations of the men’s game with independent schools.”

“We’re trying to do as much as we can to make rugby relevant to different communities, both from a cultural perspective but also from a product perspective,” Jatin Patel, the RFU’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion, told CNN Sport in an interview about the organization’s efforts to diversify the pool of people that the sport appeals to in England.

“(Rugby) has been around for a long, long time in England, but doesn’t necessarily sit with, or isn’t understood by, different cultures and ethnic communities within England in the same way that it probably does with others.”

“My teammates weren’t my mates”

Two years ago, Luther Burrell, a former England international of Jamaican descent, was at the center of a racism scandal in which he alleged that he saw a racist message in a players WhatsApp group.

He told the Daily Mail  in 2022 that racism was “rife” in the sport and that he had racist comments directed towards him by teammates.

Burrell recalled his experience in detail in his 2022 interview, saying that he “heard things that you wouldn’t expect to hear 20 years ago” and had racial slurs and “jokes” about slavery and bananas aimed towards him.

CNN reached out to Burrell about his experiences, but he declined to comment.

The RFU conducted an investigation into Burrell’s claims that concluded in 2023. It found evidence of a “WhatsApp message which contained a racist comment” and stated that Burrell’s wider allegations were true “on balance of probability” but noted that there was “insufficient evidence to say whether all the allegations occurred at the club.”

Patel told CNN Sport that Burrell’s allegations in 2022 were “a real inflection point” for the RFU and that the governing body had worked closely with the player to do its “due diligence” and understand the extent to which the center’s experiences had been shared across the sport.

He explained that a widespread education program in the elite game has been rolled out, in which more than 2,000 people have participated.

Within the UK, however, these issues are not exclusive to England. Ashton Hewitt – who plays as a winger for the Dragons in his native Wales and is also of Jamaican descent through his father – told CNN Sport that he experienced racism when he was introduced to the sport as a child.

“From the very start playing rugby, I faced racial abuse quite consistently,” he said. “It was very tough. I probably got that stereotype of being the young, aggressive, Black boy because I got so angry and retaliated by fighting.”

He explained that the racism was directed towards him by both parents and children and that it worsened in areas of Wales with less diverse populations.

As he got older, he said, the racism took on an arguably more sinister form. It was no longer explicit in its nature, he said, instead becoming covert under the guise of “racial banter” that was perpetuated by an “old school mentality” in the locker room.

“For a long, long time, I felt like my teammates weren’t my mates. They were just colleagues,” Hewitt said.

The WRU’s Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Liam Scott, outlined a number of the governing body’s initiatives that strive to combat racism and increase diversity in the sport when contacted by CNN for a response to Hewitt’s comments. He explained that many of the initiatives are specifically aimed at getting children and young people from all communities involved in rugby.

“There is no room for discrimination or hatred of any kind in rugby, and we will not tolerate it,” said Scott in a statement.

Hewitt stressed that Dragons had supported him in the challenges he has faced.

The Welshman also believes that rugby’s issues are a microcosm of British society.

“I think the same things happen in workplaces, in the pub. You know, everyone has had similar experiences, more often than not, inside or outside of sport,” said Hewitt.

Understanding cultural differences

Kabeya and Hewitt both agreed that improvements can be made by acknowledging and tackling the issues that Black players face, and understanding the different cultural experiences held by players of color, no matter how minor these are perceived to be.

Kabeya is particularly passionate about the topic of Black rugby players’ hair. Its significance runs deep, given the historical links between Black hair and identity and also resistance.

“I think hair is a really sacred thing for us,” she said. “It’s something we use to express ourselves, something that we use to feel good.”

She explained that she was on the receiving end of careless remarks while moving up the ranks playing rugby and believes she would not face the same comments if she were a Caucasian woman with straight hair.

Kabeya now wears a scrum cap – usually worn to guard the ears during scrums – to protect her hair and has called for a satin layer to be added inside the protective head gear for players with natural Black hair so that they do not have to worry about how their hair will look postgame.

“Comments about hair or tiny things might seem throwaway to someone else but can be really, really damaging to someone’s confidence,” she said.

A long road

Patel added that “we can’t expect the game to diversify overnight” but said that a plan has been launched with the aim of engaging 10,000 people from Black and South Asian backgrounds over the next four years, now operating in six different regions in England.

Although Kabeya and Hewitt acknowledged the steps that are being taken, they say they have both been discouraged by the sport’s lack of progress in the UK regarding racism, discrimination and representation.

Hewitt speaks openly about the subject on social media and told CNN he felt determined to make a difference in any way he could after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, saying that he remains undeterred despite receiving waves of abuse online.

He also said that he would “love” to stay in rugby after his playing career has concluded, working to increase diversity and inclusion and “go from club to club, work with governing bodies and help make positive change wherever I can.”

Both players agreed, however, that it is not the responsibility of people of color in the sport to provide education and advice to those who require it.

“It’s about these organizations and governing bodies taking the responsibility to engage with these different communities, different cultures that won’t be engaging with rugby for different reasons,” Hewitt said.

“It feels to me that the sport always comes first and people and social issues come second,” he added. “Things have gotten better from 50 years ago – is that good enough?”

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