Speaking to Nik Simon of the Daily Mail, Luther Burrell has hit out at a racist culture prevalent in rugby still today.
A talented centre, Burrell spent the majority of his playing career at Northampton Saints, before ending his time at the Newcastle Falcons just last year.
At one stage he was a regular in the England team, making 15 appearances over a 3-year period. He made his final appearance for the national side in 2016 when Eddie Jones took over as head coach.
Now retired from rugby, 32-year-old Burrell clearly feels more comfortable speaking out about the tough times he experienced during his playing days.
“I’ve said things that have probably crossed the line,” Burrell said. “Naivety, insecurity, wanting to fit in, the need to be liked. Things are said in the changing room that shouldn’t be said. A lot of what’s said isn’t even malicious, but it’s become normal and it needs to be addressed.
My son and daughter, three and five, are mixed race. Would I be happy with them getting the same racial ‘banter’ from their friends? Of course not.”
Clearly frustrated by the open and free nature of the racist jokes, Burrell gave an insight into some of the comments he has had to deal with:
“Comments about bananas when you’re making a smoothie in the morning. Comments about fried chicken when you’re out for dinner.
“We had a hot day at training and I told one of the lads to put on their factor 50. Someone came back and said, “You don’t need it, Luth, put your carrot oil on”.
“Then another lad jumps in and says, “No, no, no, he’ll need it for where his shackles were as a slave”.
Fellow players would regularly greet him in a manner he felt highly aggrieved by:
“What’s up my n*****?”, some players would say.
“I’d laugh it off. I’ve been a coward by not speaking up. There’s seniority in rugby environments. You’re treading on eggshells because you don’t want to become segregated from the group.”
“If I was 10 years younger, no way would I be sat here doing this. You want to fit in. You want to be liked.”
Explaining that he was highly uncomfortable with these comments, he hopes that by speaking out now, there will be a conversation within rugby that helps move attitudes forward.
He also admitted that previously he had been complicit and chose not to call anyone out in order to fit in, but feels that future generations should not have to go through this expectation.
The class divide in rugby has been spoken about a lot in recent times, and Burrell feels very strongly that it contributes to certain attitudes.
“I grew up on a council estate in Huddersfield. Ellis Genge is a council estate lad. Are there many Genges around the league? I don’t think there are. When I was in the England team, the only person with a similar upbringing to me was Kyle Eastmond and he walked away from the game aged 31.
“Do football changing rooms have this type of stuff being thrown around? No, because it’s far more diverse.
“The change has to come from within but it won’t happen overnight. You need to plant the seed. I love our sport and I want to see it move forwards.”
Burrell hopes that the younger generation will be able to bring about change so that his children and those around them do not have to deal with the racist jokes that he has.