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Luther Burrell: RFU investigation finds player's racism claims to be true

Luther Burrell, who won 15 caps for England, claimed racist "banter" has become "normalised" among team-mates and that racism was "rife" in the sport; an eight-month investigation was launched after Burrell saw an alleged racist message in a WhatsApp group involving Premiership players

Newcastle Falcons' Luther Burrell during the Gallagher Premiership match at Kingston Park
Image: Luther Burrell joined Newcastle Falcons in 2020 but left in June, shortly after detailing his experiences of racism

An independent investigation has found that Luther Burrell was the victim of racial abuse during his time at Newcastle but the Rugby Football Union has ruled out taking disciplinary action.

An eight-month investigation was launched after the former England international claimed he saw an alleged racist message in a WhatsApp group involving Premiership players.

Burrell, who is of Jamaican descent, claimed racist "banter" had become "normalised" among team-mates, that racism was "rife" in the sport and said he was subjected to comments about slavery, bananas and fried chicken.

Amongst the evidence gathered was a post on a players' WhatsApp group that contained a "wholly inappropriate racist term".

The RFU spoke to 93 current and former employees, including players and coaching staff, present at Newcastle Falcons - Burrell's most recent club - between 2000-2022 and concluded on the "balance of probabilities" the allegations in Burrell's original interview with the Mail on Sunday were "true, but there is insufficient evidence to say whether these claims occurred at the club, [apart from] a WhatApp message that contained a racist comment."

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Former England rugby player Luther Burrell says he wants to influence the next generation of players to speak out against racism

The report also confirms, in relation to two further incidents, that Burrell "was subject to racial abuse and witnessed racial abuse that were made both orally and in the WhatsApp players group."

Key findings from the investigation

The report concluded that on the balance of probabilities the allegations made in the Daily Mail article are true but there is insufficient evidence to say whether these allegations occurred at the club. The occurrences, that on the balance of probabilities are more likely to have happened during his time with Newcastle Falcons than not, were found to be:

The report found Burrell to be a "reliable" witness and that "his motivation for making the allegations now was his wish to eradicate such racist behaviour from Rugby Union".

At least two other employees of Newcastle gave evidence supporting Burrell's allegations.

While many employees interviewed stated that the "banter" between players was "sometimes harsh, even brutal", the investigation that was reviewed by a King's Counsel stressed that the "appropriateness of this banter between players needs to be considered by the club".

As part of the findings, it was recommended that the RFU should consider conducting a disciplinary investigation. However, it was also acknowledged that this might not help achieve the RFU's aim of diversifying the game or be in the best interest of Burrell or those who had given evidence supporting the allegations. All testimony was provided on a confidential basis.

The RFU said: "The investigation has fulfilled its objectives and does not intend to pursue a further disciplinary investigation and instead will continue to work with the club to ensure that these processes remain embedded."

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England's Jamie George says he is 'gutted' to hear about former England centre Luther Burrell's experience of racism throughout his playing career

After spells at Leeds Carnegie and Sale Sharks, Burrell spent seven years at Northampton Saints from 2012 to 2019, winning the 2013-14 Premiership title and also making 15 appearances for England between 2014 and 2016.

He switched codes to play for rugby league side Warrington Wolves in 2019, before returning to union with Newcastle in 2020. Burrell left Falcons in June, shortly after detailing his experiences of racism.

Newcastle released a statement on Saturday that said "no further actionable evidence" - for example names, dates, times or places - that would allow them to take disciplinary action had been provided.

The club said the report would recommend additional training and education for employees of the club, as well as additional signposting for reporting concerns.

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England international Ellis Genge reacts to Luther Burrell's racism claims, saying professional rugby players found guilty of racism should be named. Warning: viewers may find content upsetting or triggering

RFU CEO: 'Racism has no place in rugby'

Bill Sweeney, RFU chief executive officer, said: "Luther was very brave to come forward and share his experiences of racism and classism in the game and he has the continued support of the Union.

"We must be clear that racism, classism or any form of discrimination has no place in rugby and it was important, following Luther's revelations, to conduct a thorough investigation overseen by an independent King's Counsel."

Christian Day, the Rugby Players Association general secretary of the trade union, said: "The release of the Newcastle Investigation shows that rugby union has work to do in addressing racism and classism in our culture.

The RPA is committed to eradicating racism from the game. Luther continues to have our full support, as do all players in the game who have faced or may face discrimination.

"We also appreciate the Newcastle players' (and broader club's) willingness to cooperate with a challenging investigation at their club in the summer of 2022."

Racism experienced in 'every area of elite rugby', survey reveals

Racism has been experienced by players at all levels of elite rugby in England, a survey commissioned by the sport's governing bodies has revealed.

The results of the independent research compiled at the request of the RFU, Premiership Rugby and RPA paint a damning picture of the discrimination faced within the professional game.

It was conducted between September and December last year and canvassed the thoughts of senior players, staff, parents and academy players, as well as around 500 people at the top end of the men's and women's games.

It was found that in "every area of elite rugby - men's and women's, national team, clubs and academies - players had experienced some form of racism".

On top of a sense of belonging not being universal, the "perceived need to assimilate, as well as being stereotyped, exists, particularly for players of colour".

Classism continues to cloud rugby and it is felt the "burden to call out poor behaviour and discrimination tends to land on under-represented groups".

Some efforts made by the sport to respond to discrimination are seen as performative, while there is reporting of disparities and inequities between the men and women's games.

The RFU, PRL and RPA have published an 'inclusion and diversity action plan' for the elite game with the objective of addressing these issues.

Premiership Rugby chief executive Simon Massie-Taylor said: "As part of the action plan we can confirm that mandatory training will involve all players, coaches and staff at Premiership Rugby clubs - starting before the end of the season.

"These training sessions will tackle the issues highlighted by players across the elite game."

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