There is little Jason Robinson has not done or seen on the rugby field. From being one of the stars of the Wigan team which dominated British rugby league in the 1990s, to lifting the 2003 World Cup with England and leading Sale Sharks to glory in rugby union, he is recognised as a cross-code icon.
But as well as the glory, Robinson has experienced the uglier side of things – including suffering racist abuse from spectators in his early days as a player which at one point got so bad his mother stopped coming to watch him play.
Issues of racism in both sport and society as a whole have come to the fore in the past 12 months following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the world in response, with both codes of rugby taking steps to address the inequalities in their sports.
Robinson, who has recently joined Sale’s board of directors, insists those in charge of clubs and governing bodies need to lead the drive for change – and he felt such leadership was severely lacking during his own playing days.
“When I was racially abused on the field as a player, nobody at the highest level came to us and said ‘what you just experienced in this game shouldn’t happen’ – because there was nobody on the board who looked like me,” the 46-year-old told Alex Simmons when being interviewed for the Sky Sports special Jason Robinson: Tackling Diversity.
“There was nobody who felt what I felt, so for me being in this position now, I understand it. If players go through it, I will deal with it knowing how it affects them, and I have that lived experience and that diverse background of thought, lifestyle and education. I’m able then to do something about it.
“There has been a lot of talk about it, but there is still so much more to do and this is where, for me, now being on a board and being able to have that impact and say, to give more of an understanding of what needs to be done is key. The players can do what they want, but it’s the top which make the decisions.”
Born to a Jamaican father and a Scottish mother in Leeds, Robinson grew up in the diverse but deprived Chapeltown area of the city and part of his role with the Sharks will see him taking the 15-man code to those in parts of Manchester with high levels of deprivation too.
The former winger and full-back has already been trying to drive change with his own programmes in schools and with businesses, as well as being part of the Chapeltown Cougars rugby league project in his home city and taking on the role of joint operations manager for the Jamaica national team.
Robinson is in no doubt education is the key to breaking down the barriers which exist and that sharing stories of what he has experienced throughout his life will serve to drive change.
“In many ways, I live a very privileged life,” Robinson said. “While I’ve had these experiences where I’ve had racist abuse, I also have the red carpet because I’ve won a World Cup – but I can also go into a supermarket and be followed around by security.
Unless we do talk about it and unless I tell people the experiences I’ve had and why I feel like this as a black man, they’ll never understand.
“It’s a funny old world we live in, so we’ve got to have education and show some compassion. For this to really move on, we’ve got to see a behavioural change. You can’t conquer what you don’t come from and some of these conversations are difficult.
“We don’t know how to deal with them and start them and, quite often, anything to do with race people get defensive because they don’t know how to talk about it.
“I get that, but unless we do talk about it and unless I tell people the experiences I’ve had and why I feel like this as a Black man, they’ll never understand. That’s key going forward and that’s why it’s important for us all to share our stories…so history doesn’t keep repeating itself.”
Robinson is conscious of the fact of how polarising conversations around race and racism in sport and society can be, although he is understanding of those who do not identify with movements like Black Lives Matter and the messages behind them.
Indeed, his desire is that the events of the 12 months since Floyd’s death have developed greater compassion in people who may not have been affected by the issues others face on a daily basis.
“Because I’ve been there and experienced it, I understand it and understand why people don’t get it – and it’s because it doesn’t affect them in their daily lives,” Robinson said. “They don’t know what it’s like to be the only Black person on the pitch or the only black person in the room.
“For me, now, it’s being able to use those experiences and have understanding for people. I think that’s one of the biggest things to come out of the George Floyd situation is just having some compassion.
“Forget the colour, that’s a man, a father and a brother, and how could you see another man go through that and not have compassion? A grown man, calling out for his mum – if that doesn’t affect you, nothing in life will.”
Jason Robinson: Tackling Diversity will be shown at 9.30pm on Tuesday, May 25 on Sky Sports Arena.
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