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War of the Words - Rugby racism or sporting banter?

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The Six Nations disciplinary hearing for English rugby player, Joe Marler, has resulted in a surprising decision. Following a previous on-field altercation, many thought Marler would be banned from playing Sunday’s finale in Paris.

During the Anglo-Welsh game at Twickenham Marler was heard to say “oi, Gypsy boy” towards Welsh forward, Samson Lee, who is known for his Traveller heritage. The comment was audible to the fans, both those who were present at the match and watching at home. The players spoke at half time and Marler apologised for his comment. He was also reprimanded by the English Coach.

After considering all the facts the Six Nations panel decided that the comment was made ‘in the heat of the moment’ and they did not impose a ban on Marler. Rugby, like most sports, has adapted to appropriately deal with incidents of racism.

This decision has provoked a range of reactions. The Welsh coach, Warren Gatland, controversially stated that the comment had been a ‘bit of banter’. He felt that it was a case of political correctness gone too far. In comparison, the founder of the National Alliance of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma women complained. She stated that the panel’s decision would have been different, had a black or Asian player been subject to a similar derogatory remark.  

When weighing up the decision there are several legal points to consider. The law prohibits discrimination of another on the grounds of 9 protected characteristics. The protected characteristic of ‘race’ would include members of the Travelling community. The World Rugby Regulations sits alongside it, and imposes a 4 to 52 week ban on players who engage in racial verbal abuse. World Rugby has now called for the panel to explain its decision. In the interim, it has raised some interesting questions. Should there be a differentiation between different racial groups in such circumstances? How would they respond if a viewer had been offended by the comment? 

This scenario has demonstrated the sensitive nature and complexities of racial discrimination in the workplace. Employees can complain about discriminatory behaviour which they find offensive or if they are associated with others who fall into a protected characteristic. There is also a claim of perceptive discrimination, where employees can be discriminated against because another person believes they are of a particular characteristic, even if they are not. Any jokes or ‘banter’ about a colleague could amount to harassment.

Employers cannot fully prevent the risk of racial discrimination. But they can put measures in place to prevent it, so far as is possible, and to discipline those employees that fall foul of the rules.

The Chattertons Employment Law Team can advise you on your options in respect of dealing with discrimination and any other HR related issues.

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