It’s difficult to ignore. I’ve tried to; rugby has got itself into an awful mess of late. The fallout from the England Wales game has certainly marred an England team gearing itself up for an impressive Grand Slam. No wonder Eddie Jones got angry with the whole situation. A team playing good rugby has got lost amidst the furore.
The furore is tricky. And I am not about to attempt to unravel it. You will have read the column inches about Joe Marler and his mouth. You will have read even more about how the RFU has dealt with it.
I have, however, spoken to police officers and criminal lawyers about such offences, to try and understand why what happened happened. Like you, I was puzzled when the RFU released its findings on Marler calling Samson Lee ‘gypsy boy’: nothing, came the stern reply. I wanted to know how they could come up with such a response when the evidence pointed so heavily one way.
The answer, I think, lies in what lawyers refer to as the law of evidence and what the police refer to as an IP. How an ‘injured party’ responds to such a comment is crucial in determining whether there is a case to answer. If they refuse to be the IP, then there is an almost insurmountable problem with prosecution. If there is no IP, then evidence law would suggest, in this sort of situation, no crime has been committed.
Words are wonderful things. You will use them in the most important moments of your life. People can make a fine living from them. They can get you in to and out of trouble. We rejoice at people’s first words whilst poignantly remembering their last. Words and humanity are indefinitely entwined. But words are nothing without intent. Words with different motivation, paralanguage, context, intonation can mean different things. The relationship between you and the person you are speaking to is a vital cog in the machine of communication. Understand that and you can say anything. Get it wrong and you can find yourself in seriously hot water.
Sports stars in combat, especially in a game like rugby, have a very special relationship. It is an intimate battle and ‘mental edge’ is something everyone is reaching for; how you achieve that can come at any cost. Words flow freely. At a popping crease things have been said that shouldn’t be repeated; out on the course, golfers have been known to be quite unkind if they think it’ll get inside the right head; boxers will call each other every name; footballer’s mouths can be rancid. So what is said between two opposing front rows doesn’t bear thinking about. Sport will stop at nothing to find a victor.
And so it was last Saturday. Marler’s crime was using a racial slur to try and get inside Samson Lee’s head. I can only guess this has happened before. Are there any words banned in an international front row? Marler’s real problem was the vicinity of the referee’s mic.
Samson Lee heard it; he was meant to. People watching at home heard it; they were not. This is where rugby’s problems begin. If there had been no microphone, we would not be here. Interestingly, if there’d been no microphone, Marler may not have even apologised. Where would we be then? Still, probably, none the wiser.
I’m guessing Samson Lee has been called worse. He knows his family background is a possible entry point for poisoned barbs. He didn’t react, he grabbed Marler by the scruff of the neck but that was all. He knew it was a cheap shot. And like people who know opposition will stop at nothing to undo him, he remained unmoved. For Lee, and this is the crucial bit as far as the lawyers are concerned, was not offended. He did not become the injured party.
Because it went out via the broadcast, we did have offended people. Racism, quite rightly, is something we need stamped out. In any form, it degrades the game and the people involved in it. Rugby has values to be admired. Racism, in many ways, is the antithesis of the sport. People raged against the situation. They wanted such a blatant and abhorrent tactic punished. They were offended on behalf of Lee. And this is where we start to run into trouble.
Social media allows everyone to quickly vent their spleen. We can take offence pretty darn fast. Stephen Fry, a very intelligent man, would tell you vicariously offended people populate cyberspace like the plague. We are all desperate to tell people what we think via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: we love to show our disgust. Crucially, Fry would tell you that you can’t be offended on behalf of someone else. If a comment is not meant for you, then you cannot be offended by it. Marler’s comment was meant for Lee, and Lee alone. Of that, there is little doubt.
If the laws of rugby follow the laws of the land, we need an injured party. If we are applying the laws of rugby, the IP must be on the pitch. If the IP on the pitch says he wasn’t offended, then there isn’t a case to answer: Marler walks.
Now, for me, and perhaps you too, the real ‘injured party’ is the sport of rugby. Which is why we got so agitated. Rugby had been offended and we, like good advocates, leapt to its defence. That is a slightly different inquest. And probably where we find ourselves heading. Joe Marler, by being caught on a television microphone, has brought our sport into disrepute. He has used racist language. I feel he should be punished, quite heavily if I’m being honest. We must protect our sport. We must try and implore players that, however hot the moment gets, racist language is totally unacceptable.
But, and this is the tough bit, racial slurs do exist. And they wind people up. That is the only reason Joe Marler chose to use one. Sport will stop at nothing to find its victors. It’s a dreadful and shameful thing to admit, but it’s true.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved