Rugby World Cup racism storm would’ve been angrier if black player made claims

Verbal abuse of rivals happens on the field in top-level sport all the time. It shouldn’t do but it does. It is all part of the psychological game within a game. The question is where to draw the line. Racial abuse is clearly well over it but the Tom Curry case has thrown up a potential anomaly.

If a black player is found guilty of race-based abuse of a white opponent, is it as deplorable as a white player racially abusing a black player? The RFU’s incandescent response to World Rugby yesterday over their refusal to pursue a case against Bongi Mbonambi over the claim made by Curry during last weekend’s Rugby World Cup semifinal reflected their desire to support their player but also how seriously they viewed his allegation.

Curry drawing the attention of referee Ben O’Keeffe to what he thought he had heard from the lips of South Africa’s hooker last weekend opened up a can of worms. Quizzed about what had been said during the game immediately afterwards, he refused to elaborate but in this technological age what happens on the field, no longer stays on the field.

The replay of the referee’s audio duly confirmed him asking O’Keeffe – with the quaint preface “Sir” – “If their hooker calls me a white c***, what do I do?” It was pretty much a rhetorical question. Slinging a right hook, hurling racist abuse back or walking off in a World Cup semifinal would have been an erroneous course of action.

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Rugby offers more than enough opportunities to extract legal retribution for any perceived wrongdoing and Curry went on to play one of his best games for England, topping the tackle count by a country mile. But in the end, it was all for nothing as England lost in agonising fashion and the gates of hell were opened.

The flames from his claim caught and the England flanker and his family were subjected to worse abuse than he claimed to have received on the field in the first place. The court of social media sat and convicted Curry of either linguistic stupidity or worse, malicious invention. You can dismiss any idea that he made the whole thing up. Why would he?

But the explanation from Mbonambi’s defenders that it was a simple case of misunderstanding an Afrikaans defence call ‘wyd kant’ – which translates as ‘wide side’ – was plausible. That was until the RFU brought up another allegation of a similar exchange between the same players when the sides met at Twickenham 11 months ago. Another defensive misread?

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Here’s the thing though. Even if Mbonambi did speak out of turn and go down a wholly unacceptable avenue, it still would not have been the same as if the boot had been on the other foot. For all its ugliness, a black player calling a white opponent player a white c*** is less offensive than a white player calling a black opponent a black c***.

The slant of history makes one inescapably more serious than the other. If you are white and you are reading this you might instinctively think: ‘well how is that fair?’, but consider how you would react in the circumstances on the receiving end. Bemusement probably.

The level of anger if you are black with the roles reversed, would be much deeper. Different back story, different buttons pressed. The punishment for a crime should reflect the impact on the victim.

And as miffed as Curry was at the time, he would not have been hurt as deeply as a black player on the end of racist abuse. However intrinsically inconsistent it sounds, the same offence is unarguably different.

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