UK: Racism In Rugby – A War Of Words

English rugby player, Joe Marler, was surprisingly available to play in his country's Grand Slam winning finale in Paris on Saturday after avoiding a ban from a Six Nations disciplinary hearing regarding the racist remark made towards a Welsh player during the Anglo-Welsh Six Nations clash at Twickenham.

Marler admitted to using the phrase "oi, Gypsy Boy" during an on-field altercation between both sets of players. Welsh forward, Samson Lee, has previously spoken publicly of his Traveller heritage. The slur was picked up on the referee's microphone and clearly audible for the commentators and millions of viewers tuning in.

The disciplinary panel noted that Marler had apologised to Lee and been reprimanded by English coach, Eddie Jones. Whilst not condoning racism, the panel also have accepted that the comment was made "in the heat of the moment".

The utterance of such a phrase during a live sporting event has provoked a range of reactions from the rugby and travelling communities. The news that Marler will face no disciplinary repercussions has provoked further debate about how the panel and wider society views different forms of racism against various ethnic groups. The sport's governing body, World Rugby, has subsequently intervened to request an explanation from the disciplinary panel as to why they reached their unusual decision.

Mixed Reactions

Shortly after the game, England's Rugby Football Union issued the following statement: "Joe spoke to Samson at half-time to apologise and he was reminded by Eddie Jones of his responsibilities as an England player after the game". Jones has also conceded that Marler made a "mistake".

Wales' assistant coach, Rob Howley, has expressed his view that there is no place for racism in the sport. At a subsequent press conference, Wales' head coach, Warren Gatland then controversially referred to the comment as "a little bit of banter". He went on to explain that: "It's not just in sport, I think it's in every aspect of life where people get so PC and just make massive issues about things".

Gatland said that 15 or 20 years ago, such incidents would have traditionally been resolved "by fists and stuff" but he accepts that in the modern game, players have to be careful when antagonising opponents because microphones pick up such comments live on air.

Gatland may be correct about the historic 'handbags' such remarks used to spark during matches. However, the sport has evolved under a media spotlight where players are aware that on-field violence will carry repercussions and disciplinary sanctions. Similarly, rugby has supposedly adapted to the modern era and has a disciplinary code that allegedly treats incidents of racism with appropriate severity. Thus, the failure to ban Marler has bewildered many commentators, pundits and evidently, World Rugby itself.

Earlier last week, founder of the National Alliance of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma women, Shay Clipson, wrote to the Rugby Football Union and Six Nations to complain about the incident and stated Marler "cannot make mistakes like that and expect to just say sorry and walk away". She added that the public had to imagine what the reaction would have been had a black or Asian player been subject to that sort of derogatory remark.

Ms Clipson was incensed by Gatland's comments and the disciplinary panel's decision. She explained that a derogatory reference to Lee's Traveller heritage equates to any slur about the colour of another player's skin. Obviously, the Six Nations panel did not agree.

Perhaps Gatland and the panel have considered that, in today's media, the term 'Gypsy' is commonly used in a non-derogatory manner? After all, World Heavyweight boxing champion, Tyson Fury proudly entitles himself "The Gypsy King" while Channel 4 airs television series with titles such as "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding".

Gatland and others feel political correctness has gone too far in modern society. Yet, it is the aggressive context of the remark that Clipson has taken issue with as well as criticising Gatland's remark as condoning the issue. She has also sought advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Gatland later apologised for his description of the slur as 'banter', with the explanation that Lee had accepted Marler's apology and was not offended by the remark.

Football has had its share of racial allegations like those made against John Terry and Luis Suarez. Such incidents are relatively rare in rugby but, unfortunately, the sport does have a history of racism in South Africa. Closer to home, it is documented that the infamous 1990 'Grand Slam' decider between Scotland and England included the first admitted case of an international rugby player hurling a racial slur at another when Scott Hastings made a remark to a black English player, Jeremy Guscott. Guscott, now a BBC pundit, has stated that it is "inappropriate" for Marler's half-time apology to Lee to be deemed as sufficient without a ban.

The Law

In weighing up whether or not Marler's comments (malicious or not) do merit a ban, it helps to turn to the relevant law.

Firstly, the 'laws' of rugby - World Rugby Regulation 17, Law 10.4(m) deals with verbal abuse of players based on religion, race, colour or national or ethnic origin. Players found guilty of engaging in such verbal abuse face a minimum four-week ban, with the maximum sanction running 52 weeks for more serious offences.

Secondly, Section 4 of The Equality Act 2010, prohibits discrimination of another on the grounds of any of 9 'protected characteristics including one's race. 'Race' is defined under section 9(1) as groups identified by colour, nationality and national origin. This definition therefore includes members of the Roma and Irish Travelling community.

From a legal perspective, the incident also provokes consideration of a number of hypothetical issues:

Would a ban perhaps have been imposed had the remark been made against a black or asian player? Should we differentiate between different racial groups in such circumstances? What if Lee was not actually of Traveller heritage and therefore not protected by the characteristic of 'race' under the Equality Act? What if a witness to the incident, such as another player, or even a viewer, heard the comment and was offended?

Such incidents can have serious financial and reputational consequences, particularly when they result in legal proceedings. Employers, service providers and sporting governing bodies must be aware that individuals can raise claims for discrimination or harassment, even if they are not a member of a protected group under the Equality Act. For example, an individual could raise a claim of 'perceptive discrimination' where they feel discriminated against because another person thinks they are of a particular ethnicity.

Further, employees can complain about behaviour that they find offensive related to a relevant protected characteristic, even if they do not possess that characteristic themselves or if they are simply associated with others who do fall into that group. In terms of the Equality Act, jokes or remarks about a colleague or a particular group could amount to harassment if the comment has the effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.

Finally, section 29 of the Equality Act prohibits providers of public services from doing anything that constitutes discrimination, harassment or victimisation of service users. ITV, who aired the match is a public service broadcaster and watchdog, Ofcom, received one complaint from a member of the public about Marler's comment. A spokesman for Ofcom said the matter is now under consideration before any decision is made on further action. Arguably, if the complainer is not satisfied with the regulator's decision, they might seek to raise a discrimination or harassment claim under the Equality Act.

Mitigating The Risks

Eddie Jones' was correct in his assertion that we live in a "new world". Racial jibes are not acceptable in modern society, regardless of how they are intended. The laws of the sport and the United Kingdom legislate against such behaviour. Marler's comments fall within the definition of unlawful discrimination and arguably ought to have resulted in a ban, regardless of whether Lee has accepted the apology or is personally offended.

The above scenarios demonstrate the sensitive and complex nature of racial discrimination. It is a topic organisations of all sizes and across all sectors must take measures to safeguard against. Case law has established that employers can be held vicariously liable for the discriminatory actions of their staff.

Of course, businesses can never fully prevent this risk but they can mitigate against liability by ensuring that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent such behaviour from occurring. That might include maintaining an up-to-date equal opportunities policy and providing anti-discrimination training to staff to demonstrate a proactive commitment towards discouraging workplace discrimination. The RFU and Welsh RFU may well remind their employees of these policies in the near future.

It now looks likely that Marler will face a retrospective sanction from World Rugby but the failure to address the matter promptly and efficiently has already damaged the sport and the Six Nations' disciplinary integrity.

The on-field campaign for England has successfully concluded with victory. However, World Rugby's announcement does not signal the end of the matter for the Welsh and English Rugby Unions, or Marler himself.

The two nations are set to meet again at Twickenham on 29th May. In light of recent events, one suspects the English forwards will remained rather tight-lipped during any exchanges of on-field 'banter' with their neighboring adversaries.

Racism In Rugby – A War Of Words

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.