meEven if England are beaten in Cardiff next week by 30 points, they cannot have dwarfed the undisputed player of the season in Welsh rugby. It doesn’t matter that Ashton Hewitt doesn’t have a full cap; The 26-year-old Dragons winger has done more for the game overall over the past nine months than many high-profile players have accomplished in their entire career.
To tout him as rugby’s answer to Marcus Rashford is to risk trivializing their respective campaigns, but Hewitt’s articulate efforts to combat racism and discrimination have been equally inspiring. “It can be very lonely and it gives you a bit of heat,” he says quietly. As for the understatements, it’s like describing the Principality Stadium field as a standard stretch of swamp grass.
Because, simply for speaking out in support of the lives of blacks, Hewitt has been the subject of chilling abuse on social media. “There have been posts from neo-Nazi-type sites telling me that because I am mestizo, I am not accepted by white or black people. Another said: ‘The next blow you receive to the head I hope it will end you physically and mentally.’ It is well known that I have had a history of concussions and that is why I missed the opportunity for a cap with Wales. “
Even more disturbing was the recording he received of a black man tied up and burned alive. There were also poisonous criticisms sent after the New Years Day derby against Scarlets from a Twitter account called “random black rugby player” that featured a black wrist and offensive banner image. “It was someone who had seen the game, so it was personal. It was the first time that I got a glimpse of what footballers are going through ”.
Clearly there are much broader social factors, but, as the son of a white mother and a British Jamaican father, Ashton’s experiences from his early days at Pill Harriers RFC should be essential reading for all rugby managers. “There were incidents in childhood where I was treated unfairly, like being detained and searched by the police, which really frustrated my mother. But they weren’t as bad as when I started playing rugby as a teenager. I grew up in a fairly diverse area in Newport, but most of the teams we played against would be in the valleys. It was definitely worse when we ventured out of town. I was racially abused by children quite often, especially if we were winning, but on one occasion there were parents singing monkeys on the sidelines. I would get excited and angry and start. That was the way he used to deal with it. “
Even as he was graduating from the semi-pro ranks to the professional game, he was met with racist “jokes” that felt clearly without humor. “I did not feel safe when approaching it. For a long time I treated my teammates like colleagues and didn’t want to go on social media. He didn’t want to wear the clothes he would normally wear because he knew it would provoke a stereotypical comment. He was a new player coming in and he didn’t want to move the ship. “
However, in the end he could no longer remain silent. “Once I started to establish myself in the team, if ignorant things were said, I would feel more comfortable talking to people. But the real turning point was the global movement and protests last year. There was a great sense of drive and collectivity. I never planned to be so vocal on social media, but I began to realize that speaking out was educating people and giving others a voice. I just felt it was important to continue. Everyone in the game needs to understand racism, how it makes people feel and how it affects players. Otherwise, the problem will never be fully addressed, right? “
The overriding imperative of rugby, in Hewitt’s view, is to recognize the scale of its own problem. “People seem to think that rugby feels isolated and doesn’t have the rest of the problems of society. It is supposed to be a game for everyone, but there is evidence that it is not. “The decision to review the sanctions imposed on Argentine captain Pablo Matera and two other Pumas for discriminatory posts on social media in the past was particularly troubling. “There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed around diversity, inclusion and racism. I don’t think globally these cases are being addressed correctly. If I’m completely honest, as a black / mixed race person in sport, the overall message for I don’t care enough. “
Demanding that social media users be more accountable – “I don’t see a negative in account verification” – would be another step forward, and Hewitt feels that if players get down on their knees before the game it is losing the big picture.
“Kneeling has nothing to do with an organization, it is a form of protest, a gesture of solidarity. People can say, ‘What are you really doing for racism?’ I would say, ‘What are you really doing to fight it?’ ”. This concerted effort, he acknowledges, must be universal. “At the level of World Rugby, I would like to see pressure. It is a deep problem and without the commitment of all: players, coaches, members of the board, executive directors, leagues, governing bodies, nothing is going to change ”.
All the power to him because wielding the sword of truth, between starting with the Dragons, earning a degree in criminology, and studying for a master’s in human resources and business administration, takes its toll.
“My mother is very proud, but sometimes it is difficult for her to see some of the things that are said about me. I have a younger sister and it took her a while to understand why I put myself in this position. It has been a roller coaster of emotions. “
However, on days off, she remembers the letter a grateful young man from Newport named Ali sent her. “He thanked me for speaking because, and I quote: ‘Racism can make you feel scared, scared and sad.’ I still have the letter. When a child says they’re scared … that’s the most powerful thing anyone could read. ”Rugby has many excellent ambassadors, but the courageous and principled Hewitt is first among equals.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism