Rugby League can be a rigorous game without the sledging that all too often accompanies it. The physical contest on the field, even at junior levels, builds bodies and characters. It should also build communities through the shared passion for the game.
Yes, the rough and tumble can escalate into push and shove but it should never devolve into racist name calling, no matter how gruelling the game. And it certainly should never come to blows.
At the national level, the top players represent a kaleidoscope of ethnic backgrounds, which should be immaterial when all fans want is to see tries scored, goals kicked, clever plays executed and their team prevail.
The exchange between Berry under 16s front rower AJ Blair and an opponent – in which a racist slur prompted a physical response – demonstrates there is still a long way to go in educating young players.
The follow-up investigation, which has dragged on for weeks leaving one player, AJ – who says he was called “coon”, prompting him to strike out – sin binned and the other uncensured suggests there’s work to be done by organisers as well.
Racism is a corrosive acid that eats away at our community. It renders its targets bitter and angry and demeans its perpetrators.
Allowing it to go unpunished at any level, let alone in junior sport, taints what should be a healthy pursuit for our young people. It has the potential to discourage new players from playing and to make parents worry about exposing their kids to toxic behaviour.
Of course, AJ is not entirely blameless in this episode. As hurtful as a racist taunt is, a physical response is not appropriate. Far better to call out the slur, no matter how angry it makes you.
However, he ought to be applauded for speaking out about the incident and calling for Group 7 and the Country Rugby League to take a firmer line against racism on the field of play.
Whether it’s white players sledging Indigenous players or vice versa, there’s no place for it.
AJ said he was speaking out for all players who are abused for their skin colour or ethnic background.
Certainly, ridding the sports field of any form of racism will make it a better place to be. It will improve the game for everyone and, ultimately, encourage more kids to take up sport.
And if sport is about inclusion rather than exclusion the entire community wins.