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What can Sport tell us about Racism in Great Britain?

Atharva Prasad
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A microcosm of society


Reflecting a nation's struggle with racial equality, the sports fields of Britain have become battlegrounds against racism, mirroring deep-seated issues in the wider society. 

In June 2023, a damning report by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC) found English cricket to be ‘institutionally racist’. Whilst the obvious attacks of racism are declining, intolerance of small differences is endemic. Having played in the county system for 9 years, I have noticed that many non-white players faced significant disadvantage due to cultural friction between coaches and other players. For example, some players were deemed argumentative and ‘uncoachable’ because they asked more questions than a ‘typical’ white player would. Others were not deemed ‘good blokes’ because they did not make the same kind of jokes as others would or did not want to head to the pub for a few pints after the day’s play. This cultural intolerance caused some players of colour to be overlooked for unnoteworthy white players. The situation that has emerged, as Sky Sports uncovered, is that more than 30% of grassroots cricket is played by South Asian cricketers, yet less than 4% play professional cricket. 

We can see subtle endorsements of racism all the way to the highest office in our society. Boris Johnson's (ex-Prime Minister) refusal to condemn fans booing England's Euro 2020 team for 'taking the knee', an iconic gesture against racism, is a case in point. Priti Patel, (ex-Home Secretary,) fuelled the fire by calling the same action “gesture politics”. Whether these politicians really believe that support for the Black Lives Matter is an unnecessarily woke gesture is unclear. What is clear is that they subtly endorsed racist sentiment by belittling the movement’s importance. The grim consequences of latent racist attitudes were felt in the aftermath of the Euro 2020 Final. After England lost to Italy on penalties, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, the three black players who missed their penalties, were subjected to a tsunami of racist abuse on social media. Both cricket and football illustrate how subtly racist attitudes, left unchecked, can escalate into a significant avalanche of discrimination.

A reflection of wider society

Small actions can have large consequences. Minor intolerances in cricket have resulted in a systemically biassed arena for players of colour. Similarly, hidden stereotypes and ambivalent attitudes towards issues of race by politicians in the UK have constructed a society condemned as ‘institutionally racist’ by a UN report. The report exposes the pervasiveness of racism across a variety domains such as the criminal justice system, law enforcement practices and legal procedures. For example, black people are ten times more likely to be stopped and searched and are seven times more likely to die than white people following restraint by the police. Worryingly, in a survey of 373 legal professionals, 56% reported seeing racial bias by judges. 

Common to all these injustices is their occurrence at an interface between an ethnic minority person and a decision that a state official must make. If those entrusted with upholding fairness are tainted by bias, it leads to an inevitable and worrying conclusion: a system fundamentally skewed against a specific segment of the population.

What can we do?

The bottom up approach

The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought the problem of race into the public eye. Many initiatives to address these inequalities have been established. If we take the example of cricket, the South Asian Cricket Academy (SACA) and the ACE programme were founded in 2021 and 2020. They provide an alternative pathway into the professional game for South Asian and black cricketers to redress systemic inequalities. In football too, we see progress in the fight against racism. The Premier League has introduced an online abuse reporting system for players and managers that receive online abuse. A more visible commitment to anti-racism is the resonant ‘No room for racism’ slogan on the right arm of the players’ kits. In the workplace, the adoption of racial diversity quotas marks an important step towards equalising opportunities, focusing on equitable career progression and representation.

These are effective bottom-up strategies to address structural disadvantage. As greater numbers of South Asian cricketers join the professional game through the SACA program, or more young Black professionals progress to senior executives, the younger generations will have role models to follow. Furthermore, research has shown increased interpersonal contact between groups to be the most effective way to reduce prejudice between them. Consequently, we can be optimistic that the next generation will be more racially and culturally tolerant, erasing the stark inequalities present today. 


However, the effects of the bottom-up approach will only bear fruit in the future. The currently prejudiced, large and growing share of older people will not have their views changed significantly by this bottom-up approach. Changing the older generation’s views will undoubtedly be more difficult (just try arguing with your grandparents). However, this is the key demographic that needs to be targeted if we are to see meaningful change now. Political opportunism has caused politicians to align their values and actions with those of a politically active majority. Brexit and the government’s extreme immigration policies are both a part of tactical attempts to capture popular opinion – which in an ageing country, is driven by older people. 

Learning from abroad: The top down approach

But what can we do about this? One option is to wait it out. Attitudes will after all change one generation at a time. But this seems unsatisfactory and unfair on the current generation who, still face significant discrimination. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from abroad. Dutch MP Peter Omtzigt’s relentless enquiry into a benefits fraud scandal which, disproportionately targeted immigrants, toppled the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte earlier this year. By exposing Rutte’s corrupt targeting of immigrant families as perpetrators of child benefits fraud, the prime minister was forced to step down in the wake of public outrage. Omtzigt has set a powerful precedent, demonstrating how politicians who challenge discriminatory practices can galvanise the public and catalyse meaningful change. A fundamental shift is required in the practice of politics in the UK. Politicians must act with more integrity instead of being such fierce political opportunists. If we take Boris Johnson’s example, his remark comparing Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’ warranted stronger backlash. This apathetic attitude towards racism among politicians created clear political incentives for Johnson to appeal to key factions of the Conservative party.

Johnson had clear political incentive to use such racist comments as an instrument in securing the support of key factions in the Conservative party. And perhaps it was not a surprise that he was elected leader of the conservatives by party members less than a year later. Conservative MPs and influential figures must show more moral leadership in rejecting the normalisation of obviously inflammatory actions. Hopefully, as in the Netherlands, the rest of the country will follow. 

This solution is idealistic. In a politics dominated by two parties, breaking rank with the party line is equivalent to political suicide. Whilst this brings out questions regarding the effectiveness of Britain’s democratic system, the call for a more honourable politics seems like a better solution than simply ‘waiting it out’. Britain proclaims that all its citizens are equal. We must ensure that this equality isn't just a facade, where some, in Orwellian irony, end up 'more equal' than others. The principle must be provided with the substance it deserves, not just the lip service it often receives.

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