CRED blog series: Locker-room ‘banter’ and racism in professional cricket is a leadership problem
Chandres Tejura and Patrick McGurk
Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity
School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London
Experiences of racism in professional cricket are a leadership problem, perpetuated by locker-room ‘banter’ and rooted in deep structural inequalities, write Chandres Tejura and Dr Patrick McGurk for the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity at Queen Mary University of London. While at least 30 per cent of recreational players across England and Wales were of South Asian heritage, only four per cent of professional players were British South Asian. Further, with coaches too coming overwhelmingly from a very narrow socio-demographic group, they tend to be at best unaware or insensitive to cultural diversity or at worst indifferent, unsympathetic or hostile. If the authorities of the two great professional sports of cricket and football are serious and urgent about addressing under-representation, they already know what to do. Hard regulation through positive action measures is the way forward.
On 16 November 2021, a UK Parliamentary Select Committee heard evidence from Azeem Rafiq, a former Yorkshire Country cricket player and captain, who had alleged racism against the club. Rafiq disclosed a catalogue of racism and bullying allegations, including:
- being forced to drink wine at the age of 15 (he is a practising Muslim);
- being called a ‘P*ki’ on numerous occasions; and
- a fellow player referring to people of colour as ‘Kevins’, with another player subsequently naming his black dog, Kevin.
When asked if racism in cricket was confined to Yorkshire, Rafiq replied that no, it was institutional. He pointed the finger squarely at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for the significant under-representation of South Asian professional players, and stated that he had received a number of messages from Asian people experiencing similar situations in different industries.
As an Asian, a member of my university department’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) group, and a keen cricket fan, the case of Azeem Rafiq interested me greatly. Rafiq’s account of the normalisation of overt racism hit a nerve in me. I had sudden flashbacks to growing up in the East End of London in the 1980s. Verbal and physical racist attacks were the norm. As young children, my father would take us to where Canary Wharf stands now, back then a council estate, to see his best friend. He would be mindful of the time – by 6pm we had to get out of there for our safety before it got dark. The area was National Front (Far Right group) heartland. On another occasion, my brother and I were on our way to school, aged 10 and 12. Travelling down in the lift from our flat, we stood in front of a young man and woman. As we were walking out, the man grabbed my brother’s hair, pulling it; they both laughed and hurled racist insults. Hearing and experiencing such incidents clouds your day and angers you. You ask, as Rafiq did: Why? A few years later, I was told by two father-figures: “Son, as a British Asian you have to work 5-10% harder to excel, and even then you will be discriminated against”. We do not want to have that same conversation with our children in the 2020s.
Structural inequalities in cricket
The racism experienced by Rafiq, overt as well as covert, at the highest level of today’s professional sport, has its roots in the racism experienced by Chandres and others
of his background decades earlier. It is shocking that this situation has been perpetuated. However, when we consider cricket’s diversity statistics (albeit still patchy), it is evident that the normalisation of racism is underpinned by huge structural inequalities in the game.
The ECB estimated in 2018 that, while at least 30 per cent of recreational players across England and Wales were of South Asian heritage, only four per cent of professional players were British South Asian. In particular, the overrepresentation of white players in professional cricket is strongly associated with having a private school education. A recent paper by academics at Birmingham City University (the lead author is also a part-time cricket coach) demonstrates how white British players are 34 times more likely to become professional cricketers than state-educated British South Asians. The paper goes on to show – using the bowling and batting averages, wickets and runs of 251 male players from the same club – how the overrepresentation of white professional players cannot be explained by their performance on the pitch. The situation for Black players is apparently no better. According to diversity consultant and author, Raj Tulsiani, speaking to Sky in 2020, the proportion of Black professional players has fallen by 75 per cent in the past 25 years, with no Black head coaches or decision-makers currently in the men’s game.
Rafiq’s account exemplifies how the process of getting selected and promoted – or conversely being dropped or held back – is heavily reliant on the subjective decisions of coaches at club level. Coming overwhelming from a very narrow socio-demographic group, coaches tend to be at best unaware or insensitive to cultural diversity or at worst indifferent, unsympathetic or hostile. ‘Locker-room culture’ is key here, not just in cricket, but in sports generally, as vividly described by former professional footballer and club manager Leroy Rosenior in his 2017 autobiography, It’s Only Banter. The locker-room is where discriminatory ‘banter’ is most direct and manifest, and where the marginalisation and victimisation of players of colour takes hold and is normalised. This is why it is so important to have representative groups of senior players of colour in all parts and at all levels of the game – especially at club level. By their very presence in numbers at club level, groups of senior players and coaches of colour choke off ‘banter’, and sympathetic white colleagues can no longer be passive bystanders.
More Black and Asian leaders
How can we ensure that more Black and Asian players and leaders are recruited and promoted – fast? The ECB faced up to the gravity of the underrepresentation problem in 2018 in its Inclusion and Diversity Plan, which was accompanied by a separate plan specifically for ‘Engaging South Asian Communities’. The ‘Inspiring Generations’ strategy 2020-24 was then launched in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests (see ECB plans here). Finally, in response to the Rafiq case, on 26 November 2021, the ECB announced an urgent new 5-point plan, one point of which specifically aimed to tackle discriminatory ‘dressing-room culture’.
These have been important steps. But the basic problem with such well-meaning plans at industry level, as the chequered history of the ‘Rooney Rule’ in the English Football League (EFL) has shown, is that they are essentially voluntary and easily circumvented at club level (see research by McGurk and others). The EFL’s Rooney Rule was the footballing authorities’ first attempt at positive action to address the persistently tiny proportion of Black and Asian club coaches and managers. However, as with the current ECB diversity plans for cricket, the EFL’s action plans lacked hard targets and sanctions for clubs that failed to comply. A new, wider-ranging set of
measures – finally encompassing Premier League clubs too – has been introduced in the form of the 2020 Football Leadership Diversity Code. The diversity data in football is more robust than in cricket, and statistical updates after one year make it evident that planned progress is promising but painfully slow. In-depth research at club level suggests that real strides in diversity and inclusion practice tend only to be made at clubs where there is a degree of operational stability and a professionalised approach to employment practice.
The good news is that we know financial sanctions work. The experience of the original Rooney Rule, introduced in the NFL (National Football League) in the US, is instructive. An academic legal study showed that, in 2002, African Americans accounted for 67 per cent of players but only six per cent of head coaches. In 2003, the Rooney Rule came into effect, and in the same year Matt Millen, owner of the Detroit Lions franchise, was fined $200,000 by the NFL for not complying with the new hiring regulations. Later studies showed that, between 2007 and 2016, as the Rooney Rule became embedded, 40 per cent of the 20 NFL teams had a minority ethnic head coach and 50 per cent had either an African American head coach or general manager. The exact cause-and-effect of this progression may be debated, and the US Rooney Rule is far from perfect in practice, as industry monitors also show. But the positive pattern and direction of travel is clear.
If the authorities of the two great professional sports of cricket and football are serious and urgent about addressing under-representation, they already know what to do. Hard regulation through positive action measures is the way forward. Will the authorities have the courage to seize it? Or are we content to see yet another generation of talent side-lined and unfulfilled?
Chandres Tejura is Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor and PhD candidate, School of Business and Management.
Dr Patrick McGurk is Reader in Management Practice, School of Business and Management.
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