England supporters will not be banned from singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot when allowed back into Twickenham but it is understood the lyrics will no longer be emblazoned around the stadium and the Rugby Football Union has stopped selling merchandise that references the song.
The RFU has also given both the men’s and women’s England teams the green light to kneel before their forthcoming matches in support of Black Lives Matter and committed to having two black, Asian and minority ethnic members on its board – currently of 14 people – by 2022 and ensuring it has at least 30% female representation.
The Guardian exclusively revealed in June that, with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the RFU was conducting a review into supporters singing Swing Low amid concerns there was a lack of understanding as to the song’s origins in slavery. Maro Itoje has since explained how the song makes him “uncomfortable” but the RFU has said it will not ban impose a ban – which in practice would be hard to implement – because “it has a long-held place in rugby history” and will instead release an educational documentary before England’s first match of the autumn, against the Barbarians on 25 October. The documentary will feature Josephine Wright, a leading American professor of music and black studies, who has previously described England fans singing Swing Low as “cross-cultural appropriation of a US slave song”.
Surveying 4,400 members of the rugby community, the RFU found that 74% of people, rising to 84% of those from a BAME background, believed supporters needed to be educated about the history of Swing Low. It also found that 69% of people asked did not think the song should be banned. Other findings of the survey include: 25% of people have witnessed discrimination “often or sometimes” in rugby, the primary characteristics being race 54%, sex 31% and sexual orientation 30%; and those who participate in rugby union are significantly less likely to be female, of a BAME ethnicity and of the lowest socio-economic group.
The RFU has also pledged to improve diversity among club volunteers, constituent bodies and its council – of the 55 members at present only Maggie Alphonsi is black – but did not publish targets. The union also said that it will continue to support the message of Black Lives Matter as well as Rugby Against Racism and that both elite teams will be given the choice as to whether they wish to take a knee or make other gestures before matches.
The RFU chairman, Andy Cosslett, said: “The RFU needs to step up its efforts to improve diversity and inclusion across our game. We are living through testing times, but this will not deter us from grasping the opportunity to better reflect the society we live in.”