It was sadly inevitable that the ugly face of racist taunts at players would become an issue rugby league administrators would have to address sooner or later.
Last Sunday’s racial abuse of one of the true gentlemen, and great players, in the NRL, the Penrith Panthers Petro Civoniceva, has brought the issue to a head. But anyone who thinks this was an isolated one off incident does not live in the real world.
What the NRL will have to do, and do quickly, is make an example of Sunday’s culprits when they are identified — and the number of camera angles available should make that a relatively easy task. Their days of watching NRL matches, and abusing players, should be over.
There are several reasons why nothing short of a resolute response from the NRL will suffice.
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Firstly, racial abuse of footballers, or cricketers, or any other sports people, simply cannot be tolerated. Cricket Australia has introduced a zero tolerance policy after some very unsavoury incidents, and the NRL must do the same.
There is a second reason why the NRL must act. Rugby league, more than any other major sport, in recent years has attracted players — of all ages — with Pacific Island and Maori heritage. It has also seen a boost in the number of indigenous players in the NRL.
In some NRL clubs, half the first grade squad have a Polynesian or Maori heritage. And in the junior ranks, numbers have grown even more rapidly.
Civoniceva is Fiji-born. Both at the Broncos, and this year at the Penrith Panthers, he has been an absolute role model. He is in the top five players in the NRL today — and many would argue he was the stand out player in the recent State of Origin series.
Any number of other players with Pacific Island or Maori heritage are outstanding role models in the NRL. They are assets for the game, and for sport generally. And they are great assets for the ethnic communities they come from.
As the number of indigenous and Pacific island players in the NRL grows racial abuse, on and off the field, will be an ever present threat.
On Sunday, a couple of spectators at Parramatta Stadium sledged Civoniceva throughout the game, until one allegedly called out “You f-cking black monkey, get back to Queensland”. It has since emerged that other spectators seated elsewhere taunted indigenous Panthers player, Rhys Wesser, with abuse such as “get off the field, you black b-stard”.
The Parramatta Eels, who hosted the match, have moved swiftly to identify the culprits. The Eels know only too well how much damage racial abuse of players can not only do to the image of the game, but crowd numbers that are already on the wane.
The NRL needs to back up the Eels efforts. A zero tolerance policy must be imposed not only at all NRL matches, but throughout the game, and especially at junior matches, where racial tensions have been a growing problem.