“Christmas is coming and it’s Secret Santa time,” Traore, who was born in Guinea and moved to Italy when he was seven, wrote. “A friendly and playful moment. A moment where you can afford to give anonymous gifts to your mates, even stingy, ironic ones. Yesterday, when it was my turn, I found a banana inside my present.”
The player said the moldy fruit was placed inside a wet bag and that what hurt him the most was “seeing most of my mates present laughing. As if everything is normal.”
Traore said that while he has been forced to silently adjust to racism throughout his life, he felt compelled to share his experience on this occasion — in the hope that the sender, who has not been identified publicly, would learn a lesson.
“Bananas have a long historical link as a racist trigger that links ethnic groups especially those racialised as black, with monkeys, gorillas, the jungle,” Professor Kevin Hylton, Emeritus Professor of Equality and Diversity in Sport, Leisure and Education at Leeds Beckett University, told The Washington Post by email Thursday. “The use of these images to embody Traore shamefully locates him as an animalistic physical being rather than an intellectual one.”
In a statement shared Wednesday, Benetton Rugby association said the incident, which drew fierce condemnation on social media, did not “represent our identity and our values” and that it would “very much like to reiterate that it has always condemned with utmost firmness any expression of racism or discrimination.”
The rugby club later released a video of Traore saying that the incident was “a prank” and that he had met with the company to clarify what had happened.
“My fellow [team player], the one who played that prank, hadn’t done it out of ill-will. He’d realized it was wrong. Along with my other fellow [team players] he apologized, and I accepted the apology,” Traore said.
Sportspeople and fans have long “turned to notions of joking to take the sting out of highly problematic behaviours, the aim to trivialise accusations of racism and bigotry,” Hylton said.
The video released by Benetton was condemned by many online who argued that the team was trying to dismiss the incident as quickly as possible instead of taking full accountability. “Italian Rugby Federation and World Rugby should take action. They need to send a clear message to the rugby world,” read one of many tweets.
Professional England star Ellis Genge joined those calling on the Italian team to take further action against those involved.
“If there is no further action on this from Benetton then everything we’ve done for “rugby against racism” has been a tick box for most,” Genge tweeted Thursday.
The incident is the latest example of sports players around the world being subject to racist abuse — with many arguing that some sports institutions have failed to acknowledge racism in sport as a serious issue.
“In each sport there are general and specific issues and controversies for them to tackle that span intersecting issues of amongst other things race, class, gender, and nation,” Hylton said, adding that the banana “gift” addressed to Traore “was humiliating and debilitating on a number of levels,” and that “the denial of racism” only leads “to further and ongoing microaggressions on and offline.”
The rugby incident comes just days after at least three French soccer players received a slew of racist abuse online following their loss to Argentina in Sunday’s dramatic World Cup final.
Last year, British police arrested 11 people after the racist abuse of England’s Black players amid the Euro 2020 tournament, which included hundreds of comments — many of which featured the monkey emoji. More than 1 million people signed a petition to ban racists from soccer matches for life.
Stefano Pitrelli and Glynn A. Hill contributed to this report.