A first-hand account of the obstacles in refereeing rugby when you are of Indian heritage
I was born in New Zealand, I went to school in New Zealand, and even English is my first language. I watch the All Blacks, I did the Haka in front of the TV as a child, and my first memories of rugby is the dynamic wing duo of Jonah Lomu and Joeli Vidiri. I identify as a New Zealander, and a kiwi. But I don’t look like a ‘New Zealander’. My heritage and ancestors, dictate how people perceive me.
On any given day the officials in any sport are scrutinised. Whether it be at the elite or grassroots level. But when you don’t look like a New Zealander the scrutiny and advice you get from the sidelines is completely different. Being a player, then a coach and now a referee for over 10 years I understand the pressures everyone feels within a game of rugby on Saturdays. There are generally a few types of spectators at a grassroots rugby game. The spectator who tells you about every call you have missed against their team, the one that just applauds and the ones that gets personal.
As someone who’s ‘countrymen’ don’t play rugby the looks I got when I first picked up the whistle were interesting. But not too much was said and I felt that I was quite accepted within the rugby community. My calls were often questioned, but which official doesn’t have them questioned? Especially those spectators from the opposition. But the comments made to me and heard by my family over the last month or so makes me wonder how far this diverse New Zealand population has got to go before being truly inclusive.
Let’s fast forward to the week that’s been. I am refereeing a fast paced close Under 20’s fixture and a parent has a jibe at me, questioning my fitness and whether I am keeping up with the game. Having been a referee for over 10 years now my response to these comments generally begin with, ‘would you like to take over?’ It’s a tactic used by many referees and usually one that works quite well. The spectator generally goes back in their shell and behaves well for the rest of the game.
But this parent, they didn’t want to back down. As I grabbed my water and my towel this parent still had a few words to say. Having been the quiet kid throughout my life I challenged him and surprisingly another spectator joined. Here I was thinking that he would calm the aggravator and be done with this war of words. But this new individual explained to me he had refereed rugby for 20 years and I should create a thick skin to such abuse. My problem with this comment is that regardless of how good or bad you are you do not abuse a player in such a manner so why should an official be any different? As my conversation continued with the second spectator, the original abuser says “you should be a cricket umpire” and started doing umpiring signals asking me if I knew what they were. At this point the original abusers daughters looked away embarrassingly from him and distanced themselves. To me this was blatant racism. Because of the way I looked he assumed the only sport I should be associated to is cricket. My heritage is Indian, through a couple of countries.
I am Kiwi, my heritage is Indian. But that got nothing to do with my credentials of being a rugby referee. Yet this individual felt that because I didn’t look like I belonged in the sport he was allowed to hurl such abuse at me. We bandy about that New Zealand is such a multi-cultural diverse country, which is true. Our census data shows that we have a number of ethnicities residing in our country. However, are we inclusive? Do we make other cultures feel safe and welcomed? I’m not so sure. Although this is one isolated situation, I have seen and heard of many other forms of racism that not only occur on the sports fields across the country, but on the street, in the workplace and online.
Reflecting on this day it leads you to wonder, if you don’t look like a New Zealander are you really welcomed by New Zealanders? Rugby is a sport I love. I learn a lot about the game to improve mine but to also get others from my community involved. As New Zealanders we are known for our rugby so I believe we should all have a positive experience with the people’s game.