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What will fix racism and discrimination in cricket? 

Azeem Rafiq’s passionate revelations exposing his treatment at Yorkshire County Cricket Club serve as a testament to both the institutional problems proliferating the sport, (and undoubtedly other sports) and the necessity of being able to  raise concerns and have those concerns listened to, and addressed.  

 Rafiq’s concerns, which included as a young 15- year-old Muslim having wine forcibly poured down his throat, continuous racial abuse, and team and club disregard as he struggled to cope with the death of his stillborn child, are deeply unsettling. Yet, in the words of SNP MP John Nicolson, “no one felt strong enough to say stop”. Rafiq raised his concerns through the assigned channels within the club, but his attempts were to no avail, and which is why he was forced to go public with his treatment. Rafiq has said he is deeply sorry about antisemitic comments he made in 2011, as a 19-year-old that surfaced in press reports. He has said he hopes it does not “derail the cause” of anti-racism.  It remains important to focus on the message, not the messenger, when it comes to whistleblowing. 

Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) have implemented a whistleblowing hotline and it is certainly a step in the right direction. According to The Cricketer  the club has received 36 reports in its first week.  However, as Professor Lord Patel of Bradford OBE said at the Parliamentary Select Committee, “there is no quick fix” for the issues. Our view at Protect is that whilst we recommend every organisation should ideally have in place a whistleblowing hotline, it is not a silver bullet to fix a toxic culture. It takes much more. 

Where the calibre of problems is institutional and deeply rooted, a far more comprehensive approach must be adopted to achieve a cultural shift. 

 Protect has worked with organisations to really ‘get under the bonnet’ of an organisation when things have gone badly wrong – often very publicly – for an organisation. We are able to conduct reviews of organisational culture and work with senior management to better understand whistleblowing and create a healthy speak up culture.  Our Whistleblowing Benchmark has helped many organisations evaluate and test the effectiveness of their existing whistleblowing support systems. Too often, we find an organisation fails to really understand the benefits of a strong whistleblowing culture and the work involved to maintain that culture.  

There is a clear role for the sports regulatory body, the English and Welsh Cricket Board (ECB), in ensuring the cultural change towards whistleblowing is adopted by not just the YCCC but across the entire sport. As Rafiq made clear, his treatment and experience in raising these issues are not going to be isolated, and so in confronting racism and discrimination the ECB needs to ensure other clubs are putting in place effective whistleblowing processes. 

The ECB should require clubs to have the following measures  in place: 

  • A clearly accessible whistleblowing policy written in plain English which sets out how to raise concerns beyond the individual line managers or coaches 
  • The creation of a post of Whistleblowing Champion, an independent person to oversee the whistleblowing arrangements 
  • Training for both staff and Board on how to raise whistleblowing concerns, and training for managers and coaches on how to effectively deal with whistleblowing concerns raised with them 
  • Periodic review and assessment of the whistleblowing arrangements by senior executives who regularly report to the board on the effectiveness of the whistleblowing arrangements 

What will really help Azeem Rafiq, and other English cricketers and sports professionals like him, is for organisations to create an open whistleblowing culture where people feel comfortable to speak up about wrongdoing. Only once all levels of an organisation truly trust the robustness of its whistleblowing arrangements, can measures such as hotlines serve to bring a “voice to the voiceless” as Rafiq has strived to do.  

By Alex Southworth

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