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Interview: Blowing the whistle on racism, with Azeem Rafiq

In 2020, former professional cricketer, Azeem Rafiq blew the whistle on shocking institutional racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. He spoke with our CEO Liz Gardiner at Protect’s webinar for World Whistleblower Day 2022 about his experience of speaking up, the struggles he faced, the successes he achieved and what changes he wants to see in cricket in how whistleblowers are treated, and racism is addressed.

Liz: The concerns you’ve raised about racism have been well documented, but today we are really interested about your journey as a whistleblower in trying to raise concerns. Can you tell us a bit about where you went to first, how far up the organisation you went to internally and the response you got when you did?

Azeem: I think throughout 2017 when I initially reported it as bullying, I went to the coaches, the director of cricket the National Asian Cricket Council, the Professional Cricket Association, the Players Association, the ECB, and then finally I went to have a meeting with the director of cricket and the CEO [of Yorkshire County Cricket Club] at the time in 2018, and they got rid of me seven days later. So, I feel like I went everywhere I could really to get this resolved in an amicable manner.

But in 2018 around the loss of my son and the way I was treated I just said to myself this is not something that I can take much longer.  Even then I was in no fit state either mentally or financially to be able to speak about it at the time. I left the UK and went to Pakistan. I was in a bad place, and I planned not to come back but my wife got pregnant again, so we decided to.

Then in 2020 around Black Lives Matter and a few other things that were happening a lot of people were becoming braver and deciding to speak out.  I had an interview at that time and got asked a question and I just got emotional and started to talk about it. So really actually going and speaking out publicly wasn’t something I had really planned although it was something I wanted to do. I don’t know if I would have ever been able to do it had it not happened in that interview.

 

Liz: That’s very interesting, so it wasn’t a sort of active choice to speak out. You would have left this behind to some extent but once you spoke out these things escalated very quickly didn’t they? Was it talking to the press or was it the testimony in the House of Commons that actually led cricket to start listening to you?

Azeem: Well things didn’t actually escalate quickly at all really. It was August 2020 that I spoke to the press initially and there was a little bit of a media storm but only within the cricket fraternity at the time. Afterwards, as it happens in these cases three weeks of media stuff and then everyone gets bored. From then onwards actually it was painful, it was difficult. Every day I was part of this independent investigation and having to deal with a lot of briefings against me and it wasn’t very independent, so it was a long 18 months.

It was really when the independent investigation found that the ‘p word’ was banter and that an article broke in ESPNcricinfo in November 2021 and then Sajid Javid tweeted that ‘heads should roll’ and ‘the p word was never banter.’ It was really only at that point that it escalated into overdrive and then I got invited to present myself in front of the DCMS committee and talk about what happened.

 

Liz: So, along the way at what point was it that you felt you needed to start an employment tribunal claim and what challenges did you face as a whistleblower in bringing that claim?

Azeem: Bringing the ET claim was the thing that I found the most challenging.  The independent investigation was announced around September 2020 and initially Squire Patton Boggs and the panel were really receptive and seemed like they were going to listen.

However, when I had my first hearing with them, which lasted eight hours, their responses and their language changed and suddenly it felt like they weren’t going to listen and that they didn’t feel that there would be any substance behind what I was saying. When they saw there was something to my claims, rather than listen to me it felt like their approach changed from denial to ‘how can we cover this up.’

I fortunately had incredible barristers at Doughty Street and they felt like it would be worth it to pursue an employment tribunal and that it would make Yorkshire [County Cricket Club] think twice about covering it up. As I say I found the ET phase incredibly challenging but, in the end, actually the fact that we had an employment tribunal running was so helpful because the risk that potentially we might end up in court made it really challenging for Yorkshire to ignore the issue or cover it up. In the end I think the ET really helped me be heard.

 

Liz: So, the tribunal started people taking you seriously and taking the issue seriously. But what were the tangible results of them taking you seriously? When you look back on your experience what do you think has changed at Yorkshire and across Cricket more generally?

Azeem: I think one of the major changes has been the new leadership at YCCC. I really think leadership matters and I think there’s obviously been an acceptance by the new leadership of what happened to me, which was the most important part for me, and a real willingness to do the right thing and take proper steps to address racism at the club.

Have got everything right since? No, they haven’t. They will make mistakes along the way but I’ve always been very clear that all it needs is some acceptance a few answers and an attempt to work together to make sure that no one else should go through what I did. I’m a firm believer that the balance of support and challenge is really important and under Lord Patel there’s been a real desire to do the right things.

There’s a lot of things still needed but in terms of tangible, positive changes one of the biggest things the YCCC have done in my opinion is they’ve made coaching and kit free for any kids that come into the pathways. Now that’s so significant. A club that is not in a good financial state in a game that doesn’t have a lot of finances still committing to making the game more inclusive and getting rid of the barriers to entry, it’s a huge, significant step. It’s something all the other counties should learn from and do.

The fact other clubs still haven’t equally does show where the game as a whole is at but at Yorkshire, I think there’s been there’s been a lot of big changes. I’m excited for them [YCCC] because I really think they can lead and show the world what can happen if you’ve got leadership that actually puts humanity at the core of their makeup.

 

Liz: That’s really important isn’t it. Warm words are nice but it’s really about taking some tangible steps to make some changes. You said some really powerful things about what went on in Yorkshire specifically. But you also got the national regulator of cricket involved and I wondered what the response you got there was, what ways you think the regulator could have acted better and what changes you would like to see in the national game?

Azeem: I think I’ve been very open and honest about the fact that I knocked on every door possible. I think generally no one wanted to confront the issue so there was clearly a lot of fear around it. The problem with that is that in my experience the first instance when the allegation comes in is the most important point.

It is so vital that when it comes in its dealt with immediately in a humane manner as opposed to a risk management strategy because at the time, I couldn’t care less about what processes were going on. All I wanted was someone to listen to me and talk to me as a human about what might happen moving forward.

I tried to raise it everywhere, I wanted this dealt with without the car crash that we ended up in because I knew how damaging that would be for everyone involved. What saddens me is there’s still people suffering through this now because of the fact that no one wanted to deal with it and show some leadership.

Obviously since then the ECB did finally initiate an investigation after the DCMS hearing and recently concluded by bringing some charges but it’s start of another process. I think this is like the fourth process that I’m going to be part of and I’m not really too sure how it will end.

I think we’ve seen recently in football that an independent regulator is going to come in and I think all sports should have an independent regulator because I really don’t understand how you can be the promoter and the regulator of the sport at the same time. So, there are a lot of challenges ahead but it’s interesting to see where the game will go over the next six to eight months.

 

Liz: Yes, that’s a really interesting point. Just before we leave the regulatory discussions there’s a question that’s come in from the audience on this. The question is “of all the bodies and the individuals that you approached, was the lack of action from the NACC (National Asian Cricket Council) perhaps the most disappointing aspect?

Azeem: Absolutely. I was at an event and a couple of NACC representatives were there and I felt it was an opportunity for me to mention my situation and get some support. But they just looked the other way at the time. I’m a very emotional person and throughout this whole issue the support I’ve received has been mainly from white people whilst the support Yorkshire has received throughout to cover this up came partly from my own community.

That really hurts and that’s something that I need to speak about more for people to understand the complexities of this issue and how things become institutionally racist. There’s a lot of layers of protections and some of them come through these community and faith organizations and that is the truth whether people like it or not.

The data also shows that the NACC is failing at is job. Since 2014 when the NACC started to today there’s been a drop in professional representation of South Asian cricketers so it’s either not working or whatever they’re doing is not the right thing. This is my point about the game actually taking some tangible steps to fight racism because organisations like the NACC have got to be braver in handling cases like mine and defending victims of racism.

So yes, to answer the question I think without doubt the inaction of the NACC is the thing that hurt me the most.

 

Liz: Thank you very much for that. You’ve spoken a lot about the personal cost that you’ve experienced as a whistleblower, the threats and abuse that you’ve had and indeed the impact that it’s had on your mental health. Taking this personal cost into account, do you think your whistleblowing was a success, how would you characterize it?

Azeem: Well, I’m determined to make it a success, that’s how I characterize it at this stage. I think everything that myself and others have put themselves through for me to be heard I’m very determined that in five years’ time we can look back at it and say we played a small part in the game becoming more inclusive and a better environment for everyone.

Someone said to me a few days ago that whistleblowers don’t have a positive life after and I’m determined to change that, not just for myself but for everyone else to think ‘actually no, we can speak about if there’s not something right and there is light at the end of the tunnel’.

So, I’m determined to make it a success at this stage. As I said people are trying to change things. Parts of the game have accepted things have not been right, but there’s a hell of a long way to go. I want to make sure that we go through that journey together and make sure at the end of the next five years I can look back and go, ‘it was worth it’.

 

Liz: Well absolutely. It certainly seems to those of us looking from outside that you’ve made a huge difference already. What would be your takeaway for employers? What do you think they should learn from your experience about how to do things better?

Azeem: There’s no perfect organization. There will always be concerns and allegations of different types. What’s crucial is that when those initial allegations come, the organisation has to handle them in a humane manner. Less of the risk management more actually dealing with the human being respectfully. I think that will really help.

Most people speak out because one, they want a few answers to put their puzzle back together and two, they just want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again and to make the place that they love, their workplace, better. I think if employers see that a little bit more, that will be really helpful.

People talk about creating safe spaces and being open and accepting and I think that again comes right from the top. I was part of an event a few weeks ago and the owner of the firm talked about his upbringing and that he had dyslexia. Him sharing that with his employees was really powerful. It’s been a difficult couple of years with COVID and the challenges everyone’s faced and if leadership can be a bit more human and talk to their workforce about some of their struggles, I think inevitably that’s going to encourage the workforce to speak up. It’s going to allow employees to think ‘well you know I’m going to be heard, If I’m not feeling all right I can go and talk to my boss because he talked about or she talked about how much they’ve been struggling’.

So, I think employers and leaders in organisations need to try and create that safe space with concrete actions.

 

Liz: I think that so important. Employers need to understand that whistleblowers are just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again and they’re on the side of the employer because it’s the organization that they’re trying to support to be better. What would be your takeaway message to our audience, and we’ve got a really broad audience of whistleblowers and people working in all kinds of different sectors, is there a message that you would like to leave them?

Azeem:  Firstly, to all the whistleblowers out there who are still struggling and living with the consequences of being a whistleblower, I just want to express my solidarity. We all share a common experience and know what it’s like so I’m really thinking of them today.

In terms of the employers as I said it’s time to make whistleblowing seen as a positive thing. There needs to be tangible action now.

Let’s make together our workplaces, our environments and our society welcoming for everyone regardless of who they are. I do feel like we have the biggest opportunity I can see that we’ve ever had to make our society a better place and we’ve all got to play a part

 

This interview was adapted from our World Whistleblower Day Webinar on 23 June. You can view the full video here.

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