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Beyond Tokenism: Meaningfully Redressing Racism in English Cricket

By Dr Jason Haynes, Law Faculty, University of the West Indies, Barbados

In late 2021, the England and Wales cricketing community was thrown into disarray after news broke that Azeem Rafiq, a British Asian cricketer who played professionally for Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC), had been the subject of racial discrimination and bullying.

In his gut-wrenching evidence before a UK Parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee in November 2021, Rafiq recalled being on the receiving end of a slew of racially charged comments and related acts between 2008 – 2018, which resulted in him making at least 40 reports of racial discrimination, albeit to no avail. He further recalled taking medication to cope with the mental health challenges associated with his experience of racism, and shared that, at times, he even felt like taking his own life. He claimed that the YCCC, and, by extension, English cricket, is institutionally racist.

Following Rafiq’s evidence, which sparked widespread international attention, allegations of racism within English cricket have skyrocketed. Michael Vaughn and Gary Ballance have, separately, been accused of using racist slurs; Alex Hales has apologized for wearing a blackface; and veteran commentator, David Lloyd, has since apologized for making certain racist comments.

The uproar about the continued place of racism in cricket in England and Wales, and the associated negative publicity, has incentivized the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to suspend the YCCC from hosting, in 2022, a handful of scheduled games at its Headingly Ground; a digital anonymous platform has been launched to receive complaints of racial discrimination in cricket; and an Action Plan has been published which outlines the steps which the ECB and its affiliate associations intend to take to weed out racism in cricket. That said, at no point has the YCCC accepted that it is institutionally racist.

Whilst the response of the ECB, under the mantra ‘Diversity and Inclusion’, has been swift, one cannot help but bemoan how reprehensible it is that, in the 21st century, in one of the world’s leading democracies, racism remains a live issue.

Whilst no society is free from the ill of discrimination targeted at marginalized groups, one would have thought that with the existence of Equality legislation for many years now; the operationalization of institutions aimed at creating a more egalitarian society; and the increased visibility of Black and Ethnic Minority groups in all spheres of life, that the institutional culture of racism which exists in public spaces, including cricket, would not be as pervasive as it currently is. The reality is nothing further from the truth, however. The fact that, in the first week of its operationalization, the digital anonymous platform for reporting racial discrimination has received over 1000 complaints paints a gloomy picture of public perceptions and experiences relative to racism in cricket in England and Wales.

That racism could thrive in a society, that is highly educated, liberal, and democratic, is one of the greatest paradoxes of all time. Indeed, since the abolition of slavery, persons of colour have been told that, legally speaking and otherwise, they are part and parcel of all aspects of public life, but yet remain on the fringes of almost every aspect of public life, including sport. Rafiq’s lived experience speaks of a culture in which Black/Brown lives do not always matter. It paints a picture of a sport, and, indeed, a society that says the right things – ‘equality and inclusion for all’ – but is not seriously committed to weeding out the deeply ingrained institutional culture of racism which continues to marginalize, victimize, and oppress persons of colour.

Rafiq’s story of racism, which is shared by many other cricketers of colour, including Trinidadian cricketer, Learie Constantine, in the 1940s, far from simply bringing visibility to the issue of racism in sport, should serve to imbed structures and processes that protect the mental health of persons of colour affected by racism in cricket. It is also an important wakeup call for whistle blower protection to be part and parcel of the institutional structures of sporting bodies.

Whilst legal and institutional interventions are welcome, it is a culture shift that is needed more than anything else. This culture shift must begin with the wider society really accepting, not just symbolically, that all persons, irrespective of colour, are entitled to their inherent dignity of being treated equally. It must necessarily also involve a monumental shift in selection, disciplinary and structural policies and practices in which persons of colour are not merely afforded a tokenistic type of inclusion, but rather a type of inclusion that recognises and celebrates real talent, irrespective of colour. The immutable character of race must be internalized, and the once prevalent conceptions of racial superiority must be disavowed.

The time has come for meaningful action that goes beyond mere words. The time has come for all concerned in the governance and administration of English cricket to carefully listen to the plight of persons of colour who are subject to racial discrimination and bullying. The ECB, along with its affiliate associations, must create an enabling environment in which persons of colour feel safe and respected, and must be willing to offer appropriate reparation to cricketers of colour who have been subject to institutional racism.

Dr Jason Haynes may be contacted by e-mail at ‘This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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