EXCLUSIVE: Burrell tells why he could no longer stay silent on racism

Slave ‘joke’ was the nail in the coffin. I’m happy I found the courage to talk: LUTHER BURRELL tells Sportsmail why he could no longer stay silent as eight-month investigation upholds his racism allegations

  • Luther Burrell has sat down with Sportsmail after an eight-month investigation 
  • His allegations of racism have been upheld by King’s Counsel Joseph O’Brien
  • EXCLUSIVE: Burrell investigation finds racism at EVERY level of the game 

It was early last year when Luther Burrell sat down at a steak restaurant beside the river and first considered going public with his experiences of racism.

A couple of fellow players had suggested there was a conversation to be had. He agreed to meet for dinner but insisted that, for the time being, everything he said remained off the record.

His biggest concern was how his team-mates would react. Would life be easier if he just kept quiet? Sweep the jokes about slave shackles under the carpet. Laugh along as usual and coast through the last years of his career.

After conversations with his father, Geoff, who has roots in Jamaica, he decided to share his story. To hell with rugby’s comply-or-die attitudes, he thought.

His shocking encounters were published in The Mail on Sunday last June and on Tuesday he was vindicated after an eight-month investigation. Almost 100 Newcastle employees were interviewed and King’s Counsel Joseph O’Brien upheld the former England centre’s allegations.

An eight-month investigation into Luther Burrell’s allegations of racism has now concluded

The former England international shocked the sport in our exclusive interview last year

The RFU accelerated a huge report, surveying 500 people at the top end of rugby and concluding that players have experienced racism at every level of the game.

‘It’s been a long process but I’m happy with the conclusion,’ Burrell tells Sportsmail.

‘I don’t think I could have just carried on and stayed silent. Getting called a slave by someone you have to work with on a day-to-day basis was a real nail in the coffin. It felt like my character had been diminished,’ he says.

‘During the investigation I was back and forth with the disciplinary guys at the RFU, on the phone a lot. 

‘I met regularly in Leeds with the RFU and I had their support. I didn’t have any representation behind me. I didn’t want to claim money out of this. I took no legal advice, I didn’t feel like I needed to because my story was solid. I wanted to navigate it myself. And thankfully the report from Mr O’Brien establishes there were failures.’

Since going public, Burrell has not been offered a new deal. He had talks in Japan but the move fell through for personal reasons.

‘People presume I’ve retired,’ says the 35-year-old. ‘I’ve not announced my retirement. I feel my career’s potentially been cut short because of this. Maybe they see me as too opinionated. It’s disappointing but would I want to play in the UK? Probably not.

‘You’ve got to tell it how it is. Rugby’s been in a tough place but when you’re part of great environments it’s worth the day to day sacrifices. 

‘From a position of feeling a sense of belonging, I could never tell a young black lad from my community that you’ll get that. It took for me to become an established player to get a bit of voice. 

‘There’s cultural differences, racial profiling, stereotyping. People are surprised that I’m articulate because I’m from a council estate in Huddersfield.

‘I went to Twickenham during the Six Nations and within two minutes one of the guys greeted a black player by his nickname, ‘Black Magic’. Stuff like that doesn’t sit well with me.

‘Rugby at the moment is being very proactive to get this out of the game. They talk about education but it’s deeper than that. Where are the black referees? Where are the black coaches? Where are the black executives? It needs to start at the top.’

Burrell was initially unsure whether to speak out but is proud he did as the game seeks reform

Since going public, Burrell has not been offered a new deal and many think he is now retired

An lengthy eight-month investigation into the centre’s experiences revealed multiple incidences of racism and fresh instances of discrimination came to light during the inquiry

RFU CEO Bill Sweeney praised Burrell for speaking out. He is due to issue recommendations off the back of the review, which unearthed further instances of racism not featured in the initial article. One instance included a player saying, ‘Why did you bring your dad?’ to a young black player when they saw a homeless black man on a night out.

Screenshots from a WhatsApp group featuring a player being called a ‘negro’ were submitted but the names were blanked out.

Keen to avoid a witch hunt, Burrell opted not to name and shame any perpetrators. Subsequently, no individual disciplinary action has been taken.

‘There’s a 45-strong playing squad at Newcastle and a couple have reached out to me but no coaches,’ he says. 

‘I’ve been quite disappointed by that aspect. It took until February or March to sit down with the owner Semore Kurdi and have a chat. He seemed to be really hurt that things were going on under his roof.

‘Some players I believed to be my friends almost disregarded what I said and that’s disappointing. It’s been a real learning process about who’s there for you.

‘Mike Brown, he’s been a good friend, checking in to see how things are. I’m so proud of him for what he’s doing with Leicester. Luke Cheyne at the RPA. Kyle Eastmond, too. He really gets it.

‘I don’t want an apology and I don’t want to drag Newcastle’s name through the mud. It’s not been about retribution. It’s been about creating change and honest conversations.

‘If my kids were to fall into rugby and experience something like this in 15 years’ time, I would have been so disappointed in myself if I hadn’t spoken out. You want to set examples as a father.’

Sportsmail understands the RFU have also conducted a wider review into racism. It is expected to return some uncomfortable findings but Burrell has told the governing body that he is happy to help with any reforms.

‘I do believe these environments are changing but we’ve got a long way to go,’ he says. ‘I get messages from teenage rugby players saying they left because they didn’t feel a sense of belonging.

‘Players are saying they get s*** because they listen to hip hop music, ‘black music’, how they dress. This is recent stuff, look at what Paolo Odogwu said in the media. People do it for laughs, chasing the status as the funny guy as the team. Shut up, mate.

In light of Burrell’s testimony, the RFU have also conducted a wider review into racism

 Burrell, pictured playing for England in 2015, wants to change the environment for young stars

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney met with Burrell and has launched a new whistleblowing process as part of reforms to clean up rugby and rid the sport of discrimination at every level

‘I’ve caught myself doing it and it’s sad. Joining in with all of it. I allowed myself to go to that level too and I feel guilty about that. It’s abhorrent behaviour at times – people think it’s fine to categorise these micro-aggressions and insults as banter. There’s a drinking culture in rugby. Players have to be much more responsible.

‘Over years you’re moulded to just accept this behaviour. I’ve felt it and I’ve seen it. Our ancestors didn’t put up a fight for us to say, ‘Oh I don’t even really get offended by that, it’s fine’.’

‘People talk about legacy and helping the game evolve. Helping communities that have maybe given up on the sport. It’s something that has to continue to evolve and I want to be a part of it. As a young black man from Huddersfield, it was my dream to represent my country.

‘I am the only black man from Huddersfield to do that in an England rugby union jersey. I’m very proud of that, but I don’t want to be the first and the last.’

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