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News Analysis

Yorkshire's reckoning with racism needs a progressive outcome

Punishment for the county must be weighed against further hits to inclusion and diversity

David Hopps
David Hopps
01-Apr-2023
An anti-racism banner hangs outside Yorkshire's Headingley Stadium in Leeds, Headingley, November 5, 2021

An anti-racism banner hangs outside Yorkshire's Headingley Stadium  •  AFP/Getty Images

Once a war approaches its end, it is instructional to remind yourself of the point of the peace. In the case of Yorkshire cricket, that should be blindingly obvious: to create an environment in which talented cricketers have equal opportunity to succeed in a culture free from prejudice and discrimination, and in which all spectators can feel a true sense of belonging. An outcome about which everyone - or at least everyone who really cares - can take pride.
Now judgment has been passed on Yorkshire's racism scandal, focus must be upon achieving such an aim. This should not be about a thirst for further punishment, or yet more trashing of reputations. Nor should it be about the further vilification of Azeem Rafiq or the parading of holier-than-thou responses towards those he has accused. And those who think it's all about Michael Vaughan have clearly surrendered long ago to the cult of celebrity. Although with charges against him unproven, there is no justification to prolong his absence from the BBC.
The ECB chair, Richard Thompson, has already set the direction of travel, pleading that if cricket is to find lasting benefit from this, it must be "a time of reconciliation", a chance "to collectively learn and heal the wounds". Many still remain aggrieved. But Yorkshire cricket must never visit here again.
Such aspirations are not exactly groundbreaking. They were all enshrined in the Equality Act of 2010, a hotchpotch of laws brought together in a single act by the last Labour Government: protection against discrimination not just because of race, but religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, age, disability, marriage or civil partnership and pregnancy. An Act intended to underpin the basic tenets of a fair and equal society.
Presumably Yorkshire were otherwise occupied at the time.
Presumably much of English cricket was, too, because one of the reasons Rafiq's allegations struck a chord was because English cricket felt guilty by association.
But Yorkshire has a right to a wider context. As the media digested the guilty verdicts handed down by the ECB's cricket disciplinary committee, Yunus Lunat, a Leeds-based lawyer with a particular expertise in discrimination in sport, underlined on BBC Look North that this is not a Yorkshire cricket problem, or even a cricket problem, this is a society problem. To deny that is to retreat into an act of supreme self-delusion.
It is not to engage in "whataboutery", or to dismiss Yorkshire's failings as inconsequential, but merely to search for a sense of perspective, to reflect that the ECB cricket disciplinary committee announced its verdict at the end of a month in which the Metropolitan Police, the nation's fire brigades and Welsh Rugby have been dubbed hotbeds of racism, homophobia and misogyny. Or to point to the vile racism openly on show during anti-immigration protests fanned by far-right groups last month in South Yorkshire, and captured by the News Agents podcast. There are countless other examples. All of them deeply disturbing.
As culture wars play out across Britain, it is also instructional to reflect that Yorkshire admitted to institutional racism before the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Committee a year or so before the Home Secretary dismissed the phrase as "politically charged" and "not helpful", appearing to blame the phrase itself rather than blame people's inability - or refusal - to understand what it means.
Opportunity for disadvantaged and minority-ethnic kids is not best served by heavy fines that at best might cause cuts in development budgets and at worst tip Yorkshire into bankruptcy
In cricket, though, there is now cause to hope that the world has changed. From all this, Yorkshire cricket must move forward, owning its shame and committed to a more enlightened future. And here's the thing: it already is. Those who value Yorkshire primarily as a convenient symbol of bigotry might be reluctant to concede as much, or chide that they have heard it all before, and indeed they have, but a recently-constituted and more progressive board has been driving change across the county even though trust is low, opinions are entrenched, feelings run high, and the county (not for the first time) is on the verge of bankruptcy.
A joint statement from the interim chair, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, and chief executive Stephen Vaughan, made the right noises, saying: "As a club we needed to accept and take accountability for the cultural issues which allowed racist and discriminatory behaviour to go unchallenged. We are making great progress in our ambition to become a more inclusive and welcoming club for all."
But this is not just noises off while the scenery collapses all around them from a county that pled guilty on four amended charges - essentially, failing to address and act upon allegations of racist and discriminatory language. Matters had to come to a head for Yorkshire to recognise their wider responsibilities, but the facts bear out that they have embarked upon a new direction.
Central to Yorkshire's ambition has been their serious attempts to transform a previously narrow performance pathway that had favoured children of monied and well-connected white parents - a charge that it has long been established can be levelled not just against Yorkshire but, to varying degrees, every county club in the land.
To increase access from lower income households, match fees have been removed, free kit has been provided, winter coaching has been free of charge and there has been a hardship fund for those worthy of further support.
Potential bias in selection has been addressed by abolishing private one-to-one coaching from staff involved with age-group pathways - a recognition that parents who pay for such coaching expect results from those who can influence team selection. Selection committees have been established. It would be naïve, though, to imagine a perfect world. Already there are grumblings of parental pressure and potential conflicts of interest. Junior selection in sport is a perpetual minefield wherever the power lies.
Nevertheless, these and other changes have brought a 60% increase in participants from minority-ethnic or poorer backgrounds in the age-group performance pathways. Poorer kids, too, because the issues of race and class are intertwined.
Under the heading "Cricket is a Game for Me", Yorkshire's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion plan, modelled on the ECB's "Inspiring Generations" strategy, is being implemented with conviction. Inclusivity is also increasingly at the heart of the spectator experience.
So much, so boring, some social media sabre-rattlers will be thinking. What's our next campaign? As Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart indicated on a recent The Rest is Politics podcast, the coming generation might have a stronger moral conscience than many who passed before, but by their own admission they have less appetite for civic contributions. But only by tens of thousands of hours active commitment by hundreds of people does change occur. After the dislocation must come the vision and after the vision must come the dedication.
What still seems to be lacking in Yorkshire's approach - and what has been lacking on all sides since the Rafiq affair began - is a recognition of the importance of education in building deep and long-lasting trust in a multi-racial environment. Lord Patel did not go in for education - despite promising upon his emergency appointment to "take people on a journey", he summarily sacked 16 people, a decision that eroded trust and divided the county. It did not just go against natural justice, or cost the club millions in legal fees, but erroneously concluded that the problem was in the individual, rather than the culture.
It is worth remembering that as much as Yorkshire can, and must, use its influence to be a general force for good, its primary function is that of a professional sports club - to find and develop elite players and to run a successful and profitable business.
What Yorkshire also need therefore is a social contract for all players who appear in their age group sides and beyond, an appreciation of the cultural and sporting codes of behaviour that underpin the right to a non-discriminatory environment, but also which makes clear their own responsibilities in a talent-driven sporting environment. A new code of White Rose values that goes beyond the traditional image of playing hard and telling it straight.
There will never be a better chance for minority-ethnic communities to abandon their pessimism and trust that the opportunities are for real, to play an active part in a club from which they have largely regarded themselves as excluded. Not to do so would deny Rafiq a valuable legacy and a victory - because victory it has been - of lasting substance.
While Yorkshire wrestle with the many social and ethnic challenges that (apart from a brief period earlier this century) have been beyond them, to punish a county that has now embraced change would seem to be entirely counterproductive.
By announcing their verdict, but delaying their sentence, the ECB's disciplinary committee appears to recognise that. They may be in a quandary, but opportunity for disadvantaged and minority-ethnic kids is not best served by heavy fines that at best might cause cuts in development budgets and at worst tip Yorkshire into bankruptcy. By showing evidence of progress to the disciplinary committee, as they now must because the process will drag on for a while yet, they will have reason to appeal for clemency.
Not everyone will be placated. If not fines, they say, then points deductions. The ECB will fear reputational damage if they are seen to be lenient and considering that they recently deducted 10 points from Durham for an oversized bat precedent is hardly in Yorkshire's favour.
But even this - a more likely option - has little purpose nearly seven years after Rafiq first complained formally about racism, and then was eventually released for the second time at the end of that season. It would be a brutal response to a young Yorkshire side that is entirely unconnected with the racism allegations. In the meantime, they must begin a second successive season not knowing what points deductions they may face, but their consolation is that with every week that passes the extent of that punishment may lessen.
It is time to embrace the positives. The success over the past three years of the African-Caribbean Engagement programme, tirelessly headed by Ebony Rainford-Brent, has become the template on what can be achieved to champion diversity in sport. ACE began in South London but it has expanded into Birmingham and Bristol, and has ambitions, among others, to gain a foothold in Leeds, too. Make that happen.
According to figures from Wisden Cricket Monthly, the charity has already touched 10,000 pupils in their schools' programme and provided 44 players for county age-group sides. As Lawrence Booth, editor of Wisden Almanack, asked: "If a charity can produce them from scratch in next to no time what on earth has the game's governing body been up to?"
ACE has enjoyed substantial financial backing, not least from Sport England and the ECB, as well as attracting individual donations. Yorkshire are a long way from building the credibility to receive such support. Building their own membership and attracting sponsors is battle enough. Their expansion of coaching is already a heavy drain on their finances.
But the success of ACE is a reminder that for the ECB to debilitate Yorkshire financially at precisely the time they are striving to change for the better would be one more terrible miscalculation in a saga that has been full of them.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps