Play­ers ‘hung out to dry’ on BLM protests

Ex­eter coach Bax­ter at­tacks Premier­ship’s lack of guid­ance Show sup­port for anti-racism cam­paign in own way, clubs told

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Rugby Union By Daniel Schofield deputy rugby cor­re­spon­dent

Rob Bax­ter, the Ex­eter direc­tor of rugby, says that Premier­ship Rugby has “hung play­ers out to dry” by fail­ing to take a lead on how to show sup­port for the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

Bax­ter also ar­gues that pre­match ges­tures should not con­tinue past this week­end’s round of matches, in­vok­ing a com­par­i­son with Re­mem­brance Sun­day.

After a five-month hia­tus, the Premier­ship re­turns to­mor­row with Har­lequins’ match against Sale Sharks. Un­like the Pre­mier League, where all play­ers were in­structed to take a knee in sol­i­dar­ity with Black Lives Mat­ter, Premier­ship Rugby has left it to the clubs’ dis­cre­tion to de­cide how to “hon­our equal­ity, un­der the ban­ner of Rugby Against Racism”.

This has been in­ter­preted in a va­ri­ety of ways. Har­lequins, Le­ices­ter and Wasps will take the knee syn­ony­mous with the move­ment, while Sale’s squad will wear “Rugby Against Racism” T-shirts in the open­ing match. Bris­tol Bears in­tend to form a heart shape be­fore kick-off against Sara­cens, while Glouces­ter and Worces­ter play­ers will line up in a V-shape.

Not only does that have the po­ten­tial to cre­ate a con­fus­ing rather than uni­fy­ing im­age, Bax­ter be­lieves it rep­re­sents an ab­di­ca­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity by Premier­ship Rugby. “I am a lit­tle sur­prised Pre­mier Rugby went this way,” Bax­ter said. “Just drop­ping it on clubs and say­ing ‘there you go, do what you like’ is like hang­ing some play­ers out to dry. I don’t know how much pos­i­tive press play­ers will get if they have a dif­fer­ent opin­ion, which is some­thing we should embrace.”

Asked whether he would have pre­ferred Premier­ship Rugby to have is­sued a cen­tral di­rec­tive, Bax­ter said: “One hun­dred per cent that would have been my pref­er­ence. The big prob­lem is that it seems to have come into the pic­ture so late in the day it has been scram­bled through a bit. I think most clubs would agree.”

In Ex­eter’s case, they will be “show­ing their full sup­port for Rugby Against Racism” be­fore their match against Le­ices­ter, but have not con­firmed whether this will amount to a phys­i­cal ges­ture. “This hasn’t been forced by us as a club, it’s been led by the play­ers, and we

will sup­port them in what­ever they choose to do,” Bax­ter said. “Whether they do the same thing or dif­fer­ent things we will sup­port them.” How­ever, with no fur­ther di­rec­tion from Premier­ship Rugby over how long the sol­i­dar­ity ges­tures should last there are al­ready fur­ther seeds for con­tro­versy.

In foot­ball’s Pre­mier League, play­ers took a knee for every sin­gle match when the sea­son re­sumed, de­spite the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment be­com­ing in­creas­ingly po­lit­i­cal. How­ever, Bax­ter ar­gues that pre-match ges­tures can­not con­tinue in­def­i­nitely.

“There is a time and a place for every kind of mark­ing,” Bax­ter said. “At what stage would you stop mark­ing some­thing, bring­ing aware­ness to some­thing. This might be the wrong way of look­ing at it, but at the end of the day, we mark Ar­mistice Day for one minute of one day of the year – and that was a pretty big thing. So if we are go­ing to get some bal­ance in all of this, let’s re­mem­ber: We are a sport, we are here to en­ter­tain peo­ple, let’s get back to be­ing a sport and not try­ing to be a po­lit­i­cal tool. Let’s get back to what we are about.”

Ex­eter were en­gaged in their own re­cent con­tro­versy after the board re­jected calls to drop their Chiefs brand­ing, which crit­ics claim is racist to­wards Na­tive Amer­i­cans. The club did de­cide to re­tire their Big Chief mas­cot which “could be re­garded as dis­re­spect­ful”, how­ever Bax­ter backed the club for not bow­ing to pres­sure largely cen­tred around so­cial me­dia. “All I can say about the brand­ing is that the club have made a de­tailed de­ci­sion about that and it is not some­thing I want to ex­pand on fur­ther,” Bax­ter said. “What­ever crit­i­cism we might be get­ting we al­ways dis­cuss ‘well whose opin­ion is it?’ Are they al­lowed a valid opin­ion? Of course they are. Are we al­lowed a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion? Of course we are – un­less we’re do­ing some­thing il­le­gal.

“There are laws in this coun­try that are de­signed to pro­tect peo­ple, and we’re not break­ing any of them. Some­times it be­comes an opin­ion piece, which I’m more than happy to have. Feel­ing like you’re get­ting forced into things by a so­cial me­dia pres­sure is the ab­so­lute worst thing we should try to cre­ate at the club.”

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