OPINION | South African rugby agency is a 'white boys' club'

Rugby ball (Getty Images)
Rugby ball (Getty Images)
  • Attorney Modise Sefume shares his personal experiences of playing in the agency space within rugby, which he says needs transforming.
  • In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, SA Rugby needs to pay close attention to the people brokering deals within the sport.
  • A lack of black and female agents has led to the unequal spread of opportunity in rugby, with some ex-professionals retiring without a dime.

The socio-political issues being raised around the Black Lives Matter movement have polarised the South African sporting community and have left Cricket South Africa and SA Rugby searching for answers.

In my experience with the latter, and its affiliated unions, I have found that the transformation conversation has been limited to the selection of players and appointment of coaches.

There are very few conversations about transformation at a decision-making level. The composition of the provincial union boards, CEOs, high performance managers and directors of rugby have not materially changed over the last decade.

Equally, in the rare instances where we have had black leadership, such as at Southern Kings, we have seen some of the worst black managers at the wheel. And we still have a long way to go in this regard.

For the record, I am a staunch supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and I and am vehemently opposed to farm murders, or any other murders, and the spate of gender-based violence in this country fills one with rage.

My passion for sport and legal nous has led me to try to make a difference in rugby, using my understanding of commercial law and negotiating skills to ensure players get the best financial reward during their short playing careers.

I remember my hostile introduction to rugby. I was fundamentally different to agents in that I did not look or speak like those in the space, nor did I look or speak like the respective high performance managers from whom I sat across the table.

It was clear that I had entered a white boys' club and I would either have to toe the line or risk jeopardising my player's career by trying to challenge the status quo. This was a fine line to tread.

It became very apparent that different rules applied to different people. There was inconsistency in the application of the governing agent rules and regulations and it left one wondering if there were, at times, nefarious intentions at play.

One cannot simply ignore the fact that out of 53 accredited agents (as of 2019), there is only a fraction of agents of colour, which has caused a huge disparity in how some players are recompensed as opposed to others.

This is something SA Rugby should be particularly worried about if they are truly committed to transformation at all levels.

By no means am I saying it's a bad thing that there are more white agents than agents of colour; that is simply the nature of the beast. It is, however, long overdue for SA Rugby to make a considered investment into the inclusion of more agents of colour.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Black agents can unearth more black players, ultimately resulting in a bigger talent base for our coaches and solving other transformation concerns in the sport.

As we've seen in the past with black players whose careers have fallen by the wayside or who have simply been spat out by the system, having an agent who doesn't understand your needs or background can be damaging to your career.

We've heard and read countless stories of players retiring broke, losing contracts at their peak or getting paid as little as R1 000 a game in the professional era.

The much-publicised Lionel Mapoe versus Free State saga from a decade ago - where the former SA Under-21 star was paid less than R200 000 a year while his white counterparts got R1-million contracts - showed the ugly side of the game's dealings.

Recently, Hilton Lobberts, who was a Springbok at 19 and broke at 34, told SA Rugby Magazine: "I have almost nothing left from rugby. That's the hard part because I don't have a degree or any skills, other than rugby."

We still have a long way to go if black players' careers that start out with as much promise as Lobberts' end the way his did.

When you impact a player's career or earning potential, you do more damage than someone spewing racial epithets - not that that's excusable. You remove food from their families' mouths and you condemn that player to an uncertain post-rugby future.

It would be a stretch for me to say that I experienced overt racism, but I can comfortably say that a few administrators did not appreciate having to negotiate with a tough, black representative who would not settle for less than what their player deserved.

The air of "superiority" is palpable and you have to deal with getting undermined a lot. Some administrators have gone as far as bypassing me to speak to my player directly during the negotiation process, as if to suggest that I'm insignificant.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter, now is the time for SA Rugby and unions to deeply reflect on how they have created and maintained environments that particularly favour one group over another and how their inaction in this regard fosters a culture of disenfranchisement of people of colour. Lest we forget, rugby desperately needs more women representation throughout its structures, too.

I have written and passed SA Rugby's mandatory agency exam and in my capacity as an attorney, I have, so far, negotiated two Super Rugby contracts and one PRO14 contract. I have also brokered one of the premier endorsement deals for World Cup-winning Springbok Jesse Kriel, and helped another two Super Rugby players with the drafting of personal contracts.

SA Rugby has a duty to remove its barriers to entry for black agents and unions ought to treat the few operating within the sport with as much respect as they treat their white contemporaries.

Modise Sefume is a sports and entertainment attorney and is a director at Giyose Sefume Attorneys. He writes in his personal capacity.

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
What is your favourite sport to watch on TV?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
41% - 11350 votes
12% - 3259 votes
19% - 5112 votes
2% - 681 votes
1% - 268 votes
2% - 635 votes
5% - 1402 votes
8% - 2322 votes
3% - 917 votes
Water sports
1% - 244 votes
American sports
1% - 332 votes
3% - 891 votes