Sport has a purity of physical endeavour, mental concentration, heart and spirit that compels us to assume it is an even playing field unfettered by politics, race and other social barriers. As such we often see sport as a unifying bridge between cultures, creeds and colours.

Herald on Sunday sports editor Paul Lewis claimed as much in a recent column, lauding our rugby as free of the racism that exists in British sport. According to Lewis, otherwise derogatory terms such as "black" exist in rugby only as "joshing terms of endearment".

The racial lambasting of Auckland Blues coach and former Manu Samoa captain Pat Lam has blown that theory out of the water.

In truth sport reflects society - administrators, players, spectators and supporters carry the attitudes of people in the street.


The NZ Rugby Union has a prejudiced administrative legacy: it did not select Maori for tours to South Africa because white South Africans did not want to play against them.

It did select Maori to tour as "honorary whites" in 1970, not out of a sense of right, but rather to circumvent the 1968 United Nations call for a sporting boycott of South Africa. By its actions the NZRU supported apartheid.

A recalcitrant apology to Maori came in 2010, but only after the South African Rugby Union did so at the prompting of the republic's then minister for sport, Makhenkesi Stofile.

That reluctance reflects what journalist Richard Boock (who wrote the ground-breaking She'll be white bro column in 2008) and Peter Malcouronne (author of Our Game) called rugby's "dirty secret" of racism. Indeed, even the Maori Rugby Board advised against the apology.

Boock's column presaged the Lam affair, arguing that many mainly "white, middle-aged to elderly, male, rugby supporters" have a deep underlying racism, including characterising Polynesians as good for speed and power but not for thinking and decision-making, something several figures confirm.

Former All Black winger Inga Tuigamala grew up in rugby with that experience. Former Manu Samoa captain Peter Fatialofa tells of spectators racially abusing a player when he was coach of King Country.

Manu Samoa media manager Fatu Tauafiafi says it is common.

Maori commentator Hemana Waaka has talked of being racially abused as a commentator.

In 2008 in South Canterbury there were allegations of racial abuse in a game between Harlequins and Waimate. The following year a Celtic Club Polynesian player was suspended for four weeks for king hitting a prop from rivals Mackenzie after being racially abused.

Such prejudice is not confined to older people. Last year, eight students from St Bede's College in Christchurch denigrated Polynesian players from Wesley College online after losing a national schools game, including a "nigs can't think" comment that also vilified their own players, nine of whom were Polynesian.

Former All Blacks coach Peter Thorburn, who acknowledges that racism exists in rugby, has argued it is wrong to single out rugby. True, rugby is not alone. A cursory scan of reports over the last decade shows:

* Cricket: Batting great Martin Crowe writing that Maori do not make good cricketers because "they don't have the patience or the temperament to play a whole day, leave alone a test match"; West Indian and Pakistani players racially abused in a Taranaki club cricket match; spectators in a corporate box abused Pakistani cricketers at McLean Park.

* League: Pasifika players racially belittled in a national league club match on the North Shore; former Kiwi rugby league prop Kevin Tamati revealed he had been called "nigger", "black bastard" and "monkey"; Shaun Johnson described as an "Asian gimp".

* Soccer: The captain of the Hamilton Wanderers soccer team resigned and four Somali teammates left the team after the latter were racially disparaged by officials from an Auckland team; two Chinese United soccer players were arrested for assault in Christchurch after being called "Chinese f****'; Fijian and Vanuatuan players from Wairarapa United abused during a central league promotion-relegation match with rivals Stop Out; NZ Football chief Grant McKavanagh wrote to regional associations about two instances of players being racially abused.

While racial abuse appears across the codes, rugby as our national sport has a responsibility to lead.

In 2008, Boock and Tuigamala called on the NZRU to implement a programme such as the English Football Association's "It's not okay" campaign under which officials, players and spectators can be fined, banned or suspended.

NZRU chief executive Steve Tew responded by saying "racism is not tolerated in rugby ... full stop" and that there was no need for a campaign against racism because the code had several role models promoting racial harmony.

True, think of Buck Shelford and Tana Umaga as skippers; Steven Pokere, Joe Stanley, Frano Botica and Graeme Bachop as thinkers; and coaches David Rennie and Jamie Joseph turning around perennial underperformers the Chiefs and Highlanders.

However, logical evidence to the contrary does not stamp out the illogicality of racism without also drawing a line in the sand.

The difficulty is that the NZRU code of conduct does not mention racism. There are no prohibitions or penalties.

After the Celtic-Mackenzie incident, the Polynesian player was rightfully suspended for physical retaliation. However, the player who taunted him went unpunished.

In 2010, Tew condemned comments by former All Black Andy Haden about "darkies" as "insulting" but did nothing else. It was left to the Government to pressure him into resigning from the role of Rugby World Cup ambassador.

Nor did the NZRU act during the St Bede's incident.

In response to the Lam affair, Tew reiterated that "racism is unacceptable" and insisted on zero tolerance. However, no action has been taken.

Inaction is acceptance; racism condoned by default.

A stronger code is important because unlike in Britain we do not have robust hate crime legislation to fall back on. Section 131 of the Human Rights Act on racial incitement is largely ineffectual and section 9 of the Sentencing Act 2002 only considers racism as a factor secondary to another offence.

Another issue is the cultural balance between players and officials. About 70 per cent of the wider Blues squad is of Polynesian descent while administrative staffing is about 90 per cent Pakeha. Where one culture dominates playing and another administration both are open to underperformance without careful and conscious management.

The difference between racism in British and New Zealand sport may be more imagined than real. Britain openly addresses it and may appear to have more. We are silent and pretend there is none.

In this country, racism remains a dirty secret.

Rawiri Taonui is professor of indigenous studies (adjunct) at AUT.