November 30, 2021

Changing Room Culture – It’s just ‘banter’ ain’t it?

I’ve been pondering ex-Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq’s testimony in court last week and the subsequent stories which followed. It was hard to hear and read what he had been through, but at the same time, I know that this is probably one case amongst many in sport…and in society at large. As I reflected on his experience, I wanted to share my thoughts on the problems affecting the game and how it could be a turning point for the sport.

A (very) brief overview of what has happened over the past fortnight..

It has been shocking & distressing following his case over the past ten days. Rafiq, who first made the allegations against his former employers in August 2020, finally had the opportunity to speak the truth before a DCMS committee; despite attempts from Yorkshire Cricket Club to cover things up.

This incident is complex and multi-faceted, and I am mindful not to trivialise this incident because what Rafiq had to endure was racist abuse of the lowest form, aimed and him and other cricketers of Pakistani heritage. All too often it’s easy for people to shrug these things off…”it’s just changing room banter” or “come on, we’re just having a laugh mate.”

But my question is…at whose expense?

And as if that wasn’t enough, there are stories of cricketers like Rafiq (who is of Pakistani heritage), being forced to drink alcohol despite everyone knowing it goes against his religious beliefs and values. Now, I know that following these allegations it came to light that Rafiq himself had made antisemitic comments on his twitter account at the age of 19 – something he regrets and has apologised for, but does it also brand him a co-conspirator in the ‘casual racism’ that seems to pervade so many aspects of life – and especially sport?

An uncomfortable revelation for the sport, which may well get worse before it gets better

Cricket is the second most globally watched sport in the world behind football, and having spoken to various casual observers of the sport, the men’s national team in particular represents a strong picture of diversity for the sport and modern Britain. With Barbadian-born players including Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer, as well as Moeen Ali & Adil Rashid of Pakistani descent all currently representing the national side, the ECB & cricket do not appear to have diversity and inclusion issues. Or do they? If we scratch the surface, will there be other tales like Rafiq’s that are yet to be unearthed?

‘Institutional Racism’ is a phrase which has been mentioned multiple times over the past week about both YCCC and the sport as a whole – and given what has been revealed, it is hard to argue against it. Rafiq, who has maintained an incredible level of dignity and composure throughout this case, has revealed that whilst Yorkshire CCC was the club where he had suffered abuse – this issue is bigger than one club alone and the players involved.

Since the hearing, we have seen well-known former players such as ex-captain England Michael Vaughan, David Lloyd, Gary Ballance & Tim Bresnan all accused of using racist language or terminology, with varying levels of remorse & acceptance. Independent investigations have also begun at clubs where players who have experienced abuse have also come forward, including Essex County Cricket Club as well as the Scottish national side – so this could well be a story which gets worse before it gets better.

Brands can and must do more

The reality is that brands and businesses involved in sport cannot solve this issue by themselves – but they can do more. As seen in the case of Rafiq, sponsors of Yorkshire Country Cricket Club – including Nike, Yorkshire Tea & Emerald Publishing – were quick to disassociate themselves with the club in early November; but to borrow a cricketing phase, brands across the globe need to be more on the ‘front foot’ when tackling racism and less reactionary in nature. NatWest’s ‘Cricket has no boundaries’ campaign has been a good example of this in the UK, with their campaign celebrating and promoting diversity and inclusivity in cricket in England and Wales – yet unfortunately these types of campaigns are in the minority.

A watershed moment – and a chance to improve things for the better

What has happened with Azeem Rafiq will hopefully prove to be a watershed moment for cricket, and potentially other sports as well, in helping to stamp out all forms of discrimination from the game.   Whilst it is highly likely that the floodgates will continue to open and further current and ex-players will become entangled in this, Rafiq’s brave and selfless actions have, and will continue to encourage, more players to come forward. Greater attempts need to be made to stamp out toxic dressing room culture, and perhaps more importantly, stem this behaviour contaminating other parts of society.

Written by Sam Herring, Account Executive, Ketchum London 


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