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Racism in sport – and how not to deal with it


By Professor John Williams 

Cricket has been in the news recently, but for all the wrong reasons. The case of racism at Yorkshire CCC has dominated proceedings and headlines, though it soon became clear that other English county cricket clubs are likely to display many of the same problems, if not always of the same character or register. An early clue about Yorkshire’s specific difficulties might have been gleaned from the fact that Muslim South Asians from Yorkshire have long established their own leagues for local cricket, tired of the racism and prejudice aimed at them from the mainstream of local sport in the county.  They are not alone. 

Academics studying cricket in Yorkshire have also written about the longstanding racism among local fans on Headingly’s notorious Western Terrace, and also of the exclusivity impact of Yorkshire CCC’s ‘birthright’ recruitment policy which, until as late as 1992, restricted participation for the county team only to those people born within the county’s boundaries. For many critics and observers, this strategy was deeply at odds with the new complexities of national identity construction, the effects of globalisation, and the changing nature of late-modern elite sport. Not surprisingly, it has also been identified as going to the heart of the club’s racist and exclusive reputation.  

This approach meant, for example, that while neighbours and keen rivals Lancashire CCC were able, from the late-1960s, to make authentic local heroes in their ranks (for myself and others) of the West Indian captain Clive Lloyd, the brilliant Indian wicket-keeper-batsman Farokh Engineer, and later the electric Pakistani fast bowler Wasim Akram, for many years Yorkshire CCC remained wedded to the view that local is best and, as Leeds Met academic Thomas Fletcher has pointed out, was crucially tied to the dictum that: ‘All Yorkshiremen are from Yorkshire, but some are more “Yorkshire” than others.’  

Being born into this particular version of ‘being Northern’ and of having a ‘blood belonging’ was perhaps a reaction in some parts of northern England to a world that otherwise seemed free floating, uncertain and even threatening in relation to traditional place and community ties. It clearly informed the continuing toxic and racist masculinities of the Yorkshire county’s sporting dressing rooms well into the twenty-first century. 

Of course, English football has already been through much of this terrain and initially it reacted very much like cricket has today. Back in the 1980s, English football clubs and the sport’s authorities were largely in a state of denial about racism within the game, arguing that its locus was among groups of ill-educated young white men on the terraces and so this was society’s, not sport’s, problem.  As racism continued in the sport, an independent body to Kick Racism out of Football was eventually established in 1993 and in the late-1990s a Labour Government initiative established a Task Force to address racism throughout the game, with Leicester academics and a certain young Andy Burnham as its secretariat, involved in drawing up a new agenda for the game.  

Globalisation and the financial power of the new Premier League has since meant the recruitment of elite footballers to England from all around the world and from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. The positive influence of this kind of sporting internationalisation in traditional northern football strongholds, such as Blackburn, Bolton, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, should not be understated. Of course, racism has not disappeared from English football, far from it, and getting people from minority ethnic backgrounds into governance positions in the game and in other sports remains a serious problem (Though our own LeaderBoard Academy at Leicester, in partnership with Sporting Equals, is working on it).  

Finding a place for British South Asian heritage players in professional football at any level also remains an acute difficulty. Hamza Choudhary at Leicester City and one or two others lower down the football food chain remain largely on their own in this respect. But at least the drinking cultures and the narrow identifications inside elite football dressing rooms in England have long been punctured and transformed by foreign coaches and by these new arrivals on the field, whose diverse cultures and practices have largely been respected by other players, not ridiculed as at Yorkshire CCC. The England national football team also increasingly looks like a modern urban version of England today. 

So where next for English cricket?  It is not all gloom and doom. For example, Mehmooda Duke has been Leicestershire CCC’s (and English cricket’s) first female and Muslim chair for the past three years, slowly opening up new agendas for those local communities in the city who are so wedded to the game, but who have been so distanced from its English variant.  And Lord Kamlesh Patel’s brave new role as chair and director at Yorkshire CCC promises long overdue change. Even the ECB has, finally, been prodded awake. New formats of the sport may yet attract a more varied audience to English cricket.  

But it is perhaps worth remembering that, just as English football was slowly waking up to its new age in 1993, Prime Minister John Major was defining the essence of Englishness as involving warm beer, long sleepy afternoons watching cricket on the village green, and old maids cycling to Evensong. It seemed faintly ridiculous and dangerously exclusive at the time, but now such images reek even more powerfully of racist privilege and narrowly formed ideas about what a modern England – and what sport – actually looks like. Matters at Yorkshire CCC show us that English cricket today urgently needs to get a grip and to look outward and forward, and not to some deeply mythologised and closed version of the past, no matter how superficially comforting it may still seem for some. 

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