Why Denny Solomona's ban for verbal abuse and alleged homophobic slurs has set a dangerous precedent for Rugby Union.
Whilst most fans would have been fast asleep ahead of Friday’s lead-up to the return of Premiership action, events were far from standstill at a disciplinary hearing near Stockport.
Sale Sharks and England wing Denny Solomona received a four week ban for verbal abuse that involved alleged repetitive homophobic slurs against Worcester Warriors fly-half Jamie Shillcock.
Putting the duration of the ban aside, the justification for its length has set a dangerous precedent for an ever-growing, high profile sport.
The three person disciplinary panel consisting of Samantha Hillas (chair), Leon Lloyd and Tony Wheat remarked: “The comments were offensive and have no place on the rugby field. However, the Panel accepted that they were said in the heat of the moment rather than premeditated.
“For these reasons, the panel deemed it was a low-end entry point which carries a six-week suspension as a starting point. The player did not accept the charge but all other mitigating features were present. The panel therefore reduced the sanction to four weeks.”
The big issue here is the description of the offence being mitigated by the justification of 'in the heat of the moment rather than premeditated'.
This raises a significant question. What words exchanged between opposing players are not during the heat of the moment? Does this mean that as long as a player makes offensive comments on the pitch they are immune from maximum punishment? Will they even receive a lesser sentence for aiming their comments towards an opposing player than if they wistfully screamed the comments blindly into the open air? If a player argues an offensive comment was directed at an opposition player and not in a general sense, does it reduce the severity of their statement? An odd precedent to set on a few levels.
In comparison to Solomona's ban, earlier this season French international centre Mathieu Bastareaud was suspended for three weeks for a homophobic slur against Zebre and Italian flanker Sebastien Negri.
The Toulon captain's case was also met with mitigating factors. The panel took into consideration the fact that the word Bastareaud used was in English and not his native tongue. It was taken into account that he may not have fully understood the meaning of the word used. There is no such case for this with Solomona, who not only spoke the same word (of which was in his native language) but said it up to three times.
Further to this, the initial reports against Solomona of homophobic slurs are at no point referred to in the RFU's disciplinary report. The England internationals infringement was described as 'conduct prejudicial to the interests of the union or the game, contrary to RFU Rule 5.12.'
The RFU have done a fine job of making Solomona's comments sound like the only offended party should be the game itself. I am disappointed to see no mention of a lack of evidence proving homophobic comments were stated, or even a statement on the RFU's stance on such significant issues.
While the lack of audio would have prevented the panel from hearing distinct evidence of the words used by Solomona, Shillcock's complaint of homophobic language should have been addressed.
Now, I have no way of knowing whether Solomona is actually homophobic, but I doubt it. It seems most likely to be a case in which a poor choice of wording was used with no real intent to show prejudice against the LGBT community. The issue is, however, that an individual in a position of influence used language that is by its very nature homophobic. By not adequately addressing the issue and ensuring there is no doubt in anyone’s mind on the stance in which the RFU takes on this matter, a significant issue and a dangerous precedent has arisen.
The RFU must now sit in their mess, unlikely to make any amendments or changes to the hearing’s results. I hope none of the LGBT community involved in rugby take away the impression that Rugby Union is not a welcoming and inclusive sport for all. In a time where many of rugby’s old school values are beginning to slip, this is an area we cannot allow to fall into disrepute.
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