Punished for a bit of banter? It’s rugby gone mad
England’s first grand slam since 2003. That will be my abiding memory of this year’s Six Nations rugby tournament, a competition in which we saw England bounce back from their World Cup humiliation in rip-roaring fashion under the impeccable leadership of new boss Eddie Jones.
Typically, though, the perpetually offended want to spoil my and every other English rugby fan’s fun by dragging political correctness, complete with accusations of racism, on to the field of play. England prop Joe Marler has just been banned for two games and fined £20,000 by World Rugby for calling his Welsh opposite number Samson Lee a ‘gypsy boy’ during the first half of the England-Wales clash at Twickenham in March. Lee is of Traveller stock, so it was plainly not a very pleasant thing for Marler to say. But to brand him a racist for a remark made in the heat of the moment? Is that fair?
I know it might come as a shock to people who spend their entire lives in Safe Spaces, but when 30 blokes are knocking seven bells out of each other for 80 minutes in pursuit of sporting victory and national pride, things can get a bit heated. I played in Marler and Lee’s position myself as a schoolboy, and I can tell you that even 16-year-olds can come up with some pretty colourful language after they’ve been lying at the bottom of a ruck as studded boots rain down from all sides.
Marler apologised to Lee at half-time and Lee himself dismissed the comment as ‘banter’, as did Wales coach Warren Gatland. England coach Jones reprimanded Marler afterwards, and then, as is typical of rugby players, everyone shook hands and carried on. Officials for the Six Nations tournament itself also decided (quite rightly) that no further action need be taken, since no one directly affected by the incident cared about it.
But this is 21st-century Britain, when people can claim to be offended on others’ behalf. So Gatland has since been castigated for dismissing the exchange of unpleasantries as banter and has been forced to apologise to anyone who might have been offended. And the Welsh Rugby Football Union has now decided that Marler hasn’t been sufficiently punished (though I suspect Eddie Jones may have pin-pointed the ulterior motive behind the WRFU’s sudden outbreak of thin skin).
Marler himself has also been forced into an act of public contrition. ‘I’m not a racist’, he said. ‘What I said to Samson was out of order and wrong and I am sorry it was said. Whatever happens to me, I will accept. I’m sorry to anyone who was offended. Saying it was “in the heat of the moment” isn’t an excuse, but one comment, one mistake, does not make me a racist.’
Marler has now been banned and fined. All because he said something in a moment of anger to someone who, it turns out, wasn’t bothered by it. He has been punished because people utterly uninvolved in the incident claim to have been offended on behalf of someone who was not offended.
If only there were a sin bin in life to which we might send the perpetually offended, so that they could calm down and realise how daft they’re being. Perhaps then this idiocy would stop permeating fields of life that I’m prepared to bet most of the offended regard as abhorrent, macho and elitist anyway.
Guy Birchall is a writer based in London.