Independent review into allegations of racism at Newcastle Falcons 

Following allegations made by Luther Burrell, in the Mail on Sunday on 26 June 2022, the RFU and Newcastle Falcons agreed that an investigation of those allegations would be undertaken by the RFU and that the evidence from a wide range of sources would be reviewed by an independent King’s Counsel. 

This review has concluded, and the executive summary of the report is available here.

In summary, the RFU investigation team interviewed 93 employees of the club who were present during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, including players and coaching staff and the independent report concluded that:  

  • On balance of probability, the allegations made in the Mail on Sunday article are true but there is insufficient evidence to say whether all the allegations occurred at the club, apart from the WhatsApp message which contained a racist comment. The player was found to be subject to a further two specific incidents of racial abuse (one directed at the player and one witnessed by the player), therefore, the player was subject to racial abuse verbally and in the WhatsApp group.  While corroboration of the allegations made by the player is not required to support those allegations, there was support for the allegations in the evidence of at least two other employees of the club. A highly relevant piece of evidence was a WhatsApp post which contained a racist comment (the club has made it clear that this was a group which only players could access and was not set up by the club).  The player’s evidence was found to be reliable and his motivation for making the allegations was his wish to eradicate racist behaviour from rugby union.   
  • Other individuals suffered or witnessed discriminatory behaviour. Some people were present when the player was subjected to racist comments and abuse (as detailed above). Players at the club had access to the WhatsApp group and will have viewed the posting which contained the wholly inappropriate racist term. Many of the employees stated that the culture at the club was good, however, there was “banter” between players which was sometimes harsh, even brutal. The appropriateness of this “banter” between players needs to be considered by the club. However, the report makes clear that racist, homophobic and misogynist abuse is not “banter” and categorising such abuse as such minimises the seriousness of the abuse. 
  • There was little education or training at the club before the allegations were made public, however, the club had already put in place plans to implement training prior to the allegations being made. The Academy appears to have supported the younger members of the club on a range of issues from mental health, to safe social media use and educating young members on race, sex and sexuality discrimination. However, almost all senior coaches and players confirmed that there had been no equality, diversity and inclusion training or education on safe social media use. The club had policies in place but commitment to the aims of these policies did not involve any training sessions for staff until May 2022.  Since the allegations were made the club has committed time and resources to a robust training programme. The report recommends that training must be given to all staff and players in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion, whistleblowing, harassment, bullying, active bystander intervention and safe social media use.
  • A number of recommendations are made about the signposting staff and employees should follow for whistleblowing including email addresses and identified individuals who can be approached in confidence. The training of staff and players must be recorded and the effectiveness of courses and the effectiveness of individual participation should be audited by the club.  
  • Given the player has made serious allegations of racist abuse that, on balance are true (although apart from the WhatsApp message the report has not found sufficient evidence they occurred at the club), the report states that the RFU should consider a disciplinary investigation but that the RFU will need to consider the most effective ways of achieving its aims to diversify the game and the impact that such an investigation may have on those individuals' making the allegations.   

The investigation set out to provide a full and thorough process to give individuals confidence that any concerns will be appropriately investigated and allow everyone to contribute views and experiences on a confidential basis so that the allegations could be thoroughly explored, and to allow areas for improvement to be identified with actions that can be taken to address these.  An executive summary of the report has been published so that individuals who took part on condition of anonymity cannot be identified, however the full report has been shared with both Luther Burrell and Newcastle Falcons. 

Individuals who came forward with evidence did so without giving the names of individuals involved and Luther has been consistent throughout that his aim is not to seek punishment for individuals but rather to bring about change. 

The club, which has cooperated throughout has made, and will continue to implement, changes to its policies and procedures based on the recommendations.  These include education and training, and clear whistleblowing processes with individuals responsible for them. 

The RFU will also address the wider elements of the I&D elite game action plan, all with an aim to drive an inclusive culture and ensure racism has no place in our clubs or our sport. Taking all these factors into account, the RFU believes the investigation has fulfilled its objectives and does not intend to pursue a further disciplinary investigation and instead will continue to work with the club to ensure that these processes remain embedded.

Bill Sweeney, RFU CEO, said: “Luther was very brave to come forward and share his experiences of racism and classism in the game and he has the continued support of the Union. We must be clear that racism, classism or any form of discrimination has no place in rugby and it was important, following Luther’s revelations, to conduct a thorough investigation overseen by an independent King’s Counsel.       

“Working together, the RFU, PRL, P15s and RPA, will act collectively to eliminate racism, classism and any form of discrimination from our game and ensure club environments are inclusive for any player from every background. Our collective inclusion and diversity action plan for the elite game has been accelerated in light of Luther’s experience. It highlights the need for more inclusive leadership, the need to look at reporting processes, and to broaden access to the game and pathways. This is so that black players, players from working-class backgrounds and other under-represented groups can confidently report discrimination and that leaders within the game are creating and providing greater opportunities for diverse talent.”

Christian Day, RPA General Secretary of the Trade Union, said:

The release of the Newcastle Investigation shows that rugby union has work to do in addressing racism and classism in our culture. The RPA is committed to eradicating racism from the game. Luther continues to have our full support, as do all players in the game who have faced or may face discrimination. We also appreciate the Newcastle players’ (and broader club’s) willingness to cooperate with a challenging investigation at their club in the summer of 2022. We will be communicating to our membership on how we will continue to support all members in this space.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU), Premiership Rugby (PRL), Premier 15s (P15s) and Rugby Players Association (RPA) commissioned research to look at the experiences of racism and classism in the elite game and have used the findings of the research and the impact of Luther’s experiences to focus and accelerate work that was already underway, to listen to the experiences of those in all elite rugby clubs and to agree an action plan.