Does sports punditry have a racism problem?

Among the excitement surrounding the Rugby World Cup and Ireland’s inevitable quarter final exit, there has been a significant revival in the ugly debate surrounding rugby’s residency rules. There are reasonable and unproblematic arguments on both sides of this debate. Despite this, much of the criticism of these rules strays dangerously close to a broader trend of racism and xenophobia which is prevalent among sports pundits and fans alike.

One of the stupider arguments people have made in opposition to the residency rules is that made by Luke Fitzgerald. He argued that only individuals with Irish passports should be allowed to play for the national team. An Irish passport can be obtained by individuals who have not actually spent any time in the country. Given one can normally obtain an Irish passport if they simply have an Irish grandparent this seems a particularly arbitrary metric.

There are obviously reasons to worry about national teams using players with no actual relationship to the country. The Irish football teams of the 90s had players who had hardly set foot in the country before playing for the national team. This obviously makes the argument that they were representing their country rather tenuous. Despite this, there seems to be a sensible middle ground between that scenario and only allowing domestically born citizens to play.

What this debate, and what similar debates concerning immigration more generally, seem to miss is how much Ireland gains from having these individuals here. It is not just the national team that benefits. Connacht and Munster are much better clubs for having Bundee Aki and CJ Stander play for them.

Aki in particular was integral to Connacht winning the Pro12 in 2016. He also showed much more loyalty to Connacht than many players who departed for Leinster soon after. He helped them reach their peak and stayed with them when they were no longer on it. A man who has shown such loyalty to an Irish province deserves eligibility to the national team.

It is obviously annoying if you are a player who has come up through an academy and miss out on a squad to one of these players. Nonetheless, this anger does not seem significantly more justified than if they lost their place to an Irish born player. These players have a right to play for Ireland. If they are the best available players, then they should be picked.

One of the more interesting features of this debate is which particular players seem to get the most criticism. Obviously, recently this has been Jean Kleyn however, this is probably just because he is the most recent example and his inclusion occurred in particularly controversial circumstances. The next player who gets the most criticism, and the main other player who has been mentioned by Fitzgerald and other critics of the residency rule, is Bundee Aki.

Some criticism of Aki has been blatantly racist. The New Zealand assistant coach, Ian Foster remarked that “They’ve turned him into an Irishman…he looks like an Irishman now, doesn’t he?”. Other critiques have been more coded. Pundits constantly complain about his passing and technical abilities despite him probably being the best offloader in the Irish team.

This dismissal of Aki’s technical abilities is to some extent understandable given his immense physical abilities. Nonetheless, this elevated criticism fits neatly into a broader trend of sports pundits offering extra scrutiny towards people of colour.

The Premier League is rife with examples. The two most obvious are Paul Pogba and Raheem Sterling. Raheem Sterling is one of the best players in both Manchester City and the English national team but comes in for far more criticism than anyone else in those squads. This is obviously not because he is untalented. Nor can it be explained by him receiving extra criticism because of higher expectations because of said talent. Harry Kane does not receive anywhere near the same level of vitriol despite being roughly of the same quality.

The criticism of Pogba is similar. There are myriad reasons Manchester United are playing badly at the moment. Pogba’s performances probably play some part in this. Nonetheless, he still seems to receive much more than is proportional to his level of actual blame. He is undoubtedly one of the best players in the squad and one only needs to see his performances in the last World Cup to understand how good a player he is when surrounded by a functioning team. This implies that most of the blame for United’s terrible form lies elsewhere.

A more interesting observation is what happens when pundits cannot find a way of calling these players out on being lazy or mentally weak. This strategy is normally to instead praise them for their physical attributes and ‘attitude’ while criticising their lack of technical skills. This clearly fits the example of Bundee Aki but similarly fits the case of N’Golo Kanté.

Both of these problems clearly have incredible physical abilities, but they are by no means bad at the technical side of their sports. As already stated, Aki is the best offloader in the Irish team. Similarly, Kanté is one of the best distributors in the Premiership. His main skill is as a defensive midfielder, but his passing is in no way a weak point.

While it is obviously the case that lots of sports punditry is just ex-players shouting about how players were gutsier back in their day, the frequency and acceptability of these views seems to be a large problem. It does not seem to be a coincidence that the players who are most frequently criticised in this way are not white.

Whether conscious or not, these pundits and fans are judging these players by a higher standard than their counterparts. This needs to be acknowledged if we want to make sport as inclusive and welcoming as FIFA ads seem to think it is.