In a dramatic moment on the radio airwaves, a sports talkback host put the theory of giving nothing to racism into practice.
It has long been clear that rugby has a problem with racial classification of players. It’s a well worn trope that white players get described as intelligent and knowledgeable, while brown players are described as explosive freaks of nature. And as more Māori and Pacific Islanders have made their way up the ranks of coaching, perceptions have lingered among a subset of sports fans that maybe, they’re just not quite up to it.
Tana Umaga, former All Black captain, has just been moved into an assistant coaching role with the Blues. To be fair, he didn’t do a very good job in his three years as head coach. It was three years of misery for fans, with arguably one good result under his tenure – the upset victory over the British and Irish Lions. To put it in context, here’s how Wikipedia has marked two of those years.
His replacement is former All Black and New Zealand Māori representative Leon MacDonald, who importantly for some fans of the Blues happens to have white skin and a Scottish name. The same sorts of fans who racially abused former Blues coach Pat Lam when results weren’t going the team’s way. The same sorts of rugby people as Andy Haden, who in 2010 said that the secret to the Crusaders’ Super Rugby success was that they recruited “three darkies, no more.” It is unclear what Haden made of Richie Mo’unga leading the Crusaders to the 2018 championship from first-five – a position traditionally reserved for ‘intelligent’ rugby players.
One caller to Sportstalk on Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport last night clearly had that in mind. Steve phoned up, saying it was great timing for Leon MacDonald. So far, so good. “Tana is um… anyway, Tana, he wasn’t wanted…” was the first sign of what was to come. Fair warning, the next bit gets pretty ugly.
“There’s a lot of brown players and a lot of white players in the Auckland team, I call them Sambos. But the Sambos need a…” Steve managed to get out before host D’Arcy Waldergrave started interjecting. “You’re going down a colour route here that I’m distinctly uncomfortable with.”
But Steve pushed on, saying brown players, “or whatever you want to call them,” needed more direction. “No they don’t Steve, that’s ridiculous,” shouted Waldergrave in a tone of incredulity. “How old are you? This is an archaic concept. You cannot tell me that the colour of a person’s skin denotes their attitude and how they need to be coached. That is nonsense Steve. That is insane.”
Steve tried again. “Well I grew up with them mate.” Waldergrave was having none of it. “You just said ‘with them,’ there you go again! I gotta ask what generation you’re from, because this is alarming to me.” When Steve accused Waldergrave of being ignorant, Waldergrave had clearly had enough. “No I’m not ignorant Steve. You’re a racist. You’re a racist, and it’s unforgivable, and I don’t believe you’d ring up a national sports station and say to me that the tone of a person’s skin denotes how they need to be treated. That is insanity, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Is it really so unlikely though that someone would ring up a national sports station and say something like that, given the undercurrents of racism that so clearly exist in some parts of New Zealand sport? Graeme Beasley, a long-time listener and co-founder of the Sportsfreak blog, wasn’t so sure that such a call would’ve received that treatment in the not so distant past. “I think it’s probably not as bad as it was say 10 years ago. That might be because the hosts clamp down on it more these days – (Murray) Deaker wouldn’t have reacted as strongly as D’Arcy did last night.”
But as sports media gradually changes, the sporting public is changing too. The phones lit up with condemnation for Steve. Peter was first up – “that is absolute bullshit”. Waldergrave tried valiantly to keep the conversation on the topic of sport – hey, doesn’t anyone want to talk about the All Blacks vs Ireland this weekend? But then Murray wanted to rubbish Steve’s call too. Then Edward – a first time caller – declared “that dude that rung before, I’ve never been so angry.”
As for the attitudes themselves, they’ll probably persist for as long as there is racism within wider New Zealand society. It’s not just rugby’s problem. But it will only start changing if it gets called out fiercely and forcefully whenever it rears its head. Former Race Relations Commissioner and squash great Dame Susan Devoy encouraged New Zealanders to give nothing to racism, and some might consider this sort of quashing of a racist caller to be the bare minimum. But it’s not necessarily a bare minimum that gets met very often. Broadcasters would do well to follow D’Arcy Waldergrave’s lead.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.