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Alan Simpson: The last thing sport needs is an army of diversity officers

ACCORDING to the famous quote that is wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill, rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen while football is a game for gentlemen played by thugs.

Unfortunately the famed wartime leader never actually said it, and neither did Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell or Oscar Wilde, all of whom have been cited as the source at some point.

It appears to have been bastardised over the years from a former academic at Cambridge University in the 1890s, who was so notorious that nobody actually remembers his name.

The football v rugby debate has been going on pretty much ever since William Webb Ellis got bored during a games period at Rugby school and picked up the ball and ran with it.

Thus, the game of rugby was invented – a game that would have been much more of a mouthful had he attended Gordonstoun instead.

The Gordonstoun Six Nations doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Regardless, the sport has moved on leaps and bounds since Webb Ellis’s blatant handball in 1823.

But according to former England rugby international Ugo Monye, rugby union must tackle its “heavy drinking” and “laddish” culture to become fully inclusive.

Monye is the chair of the RFU’s independent advisory group on diversity and is in his role at a time when participation at grassroots levels continues to fall.

The former England wing says some of the sport’s traditions do not “mirror the present day” or our “society”.

“Rugby, just by the dynamic of the game, really and truly is a game for all shapes and sizes from the physical aspect,” Monye, 39, told the Telegraph.

“Beyond that, it should also reflect every single attitude. It should be the best reflection of society.”

“There has always been a heavy drinking culture within rugby. I invested heavily into that as well during my playing days, and I enjoyed it.

“But if I was in Birmingham, in a densely populated Muslim community, and my teenage kids wanted to play rugby, as a parent, my perception of rugby would be: ‘All they do is drink after every match – I don’t want my children to be a part of that.’ “Rugby can’t be afraid of what it is, but I do think it also needs to mirror the present day and where we are in society.”

Monye was a very fine rugby player, winning 14 England caps and played in two British and Irish Lions Tests against South Africa in 2009.

But while he was fleet-footed on the wing, he is certainly far more pedestrian with his words.

Firstly, why on earth does the RFU need an advisory group on diversity? If you look at the average line-up of an England rugby or football team, it is clear they are diverse.

Diversity officers are seemingly the only ones that are thriving in today’s UK, battered by the post-pandemic economic crosswinds.

Every organisation appears to have at least one, although it is unclear quite what they have actually achieved.

What is worse about Monye’s comments is the ease with which he uses lazy stereotypes to illustrate a problem that may or may not exist.

His assertion that young Muslims do not take up rugby in great numbers because of the drinking culture reputation is a lazy assumption that does nobody any favours.

It is also insulting to both Muslims and rugby players, many of whom don’t drink to excess, particularly professional players.

He would be far better employed actually asking Muslims why they don’t want to play, rather than just assume or guess at the reasons.

But Monye then compounded the offence when he was talking about the lack of LGBT players in the men’s game.

He claimed that a “fairly laddish” changing room during his playing days could have prevented some of his team-mates from being able to come out.

Monye’s former Harlequins team-mate Simon Miall came out publicly as gay after he had retired in 2007, after five seasons with the club.

Again, it is a lazy assumption that somehow gay men cannot thrive in a male changing room and feel intimidated, so they hide their sexuality.

This may be true for some, but Welsh winger Gareth Thomas and legendary referee Nigel Owens were more than comfortable enough to come out.

Rugby is not everyone’s cup of tea and there are a myriad of reasons not to play it. This is true for every sport.

But while it is crucial to get participation levels up for the sake of the nation’s health, introducing quotas, which is the way we seem to be going, is wrong.



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