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
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.”