Racism in Yorkshire County Cricket Club
The journey to justice has been long and treacherous; and it’s not over yet for Azeem Rafiq. The recent crisis at Yorkshire County Cricket Club is one to add to the ever-growing list of a series of significant racism scandals in sport. In this article, we dive into what happened, how the incident was handled, what the response has been and what the ramifications could be for the sport.
It all kicked off in September 2020 when 30-year-old Azeem Rafiq spoke out about his experience of racism while playing at Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) from 2008-2018 and captaining the side in 2012. Rafiq, speaking to ESPN Cricinfo, detailed the extent of “institutional racism” he encountered, as a result of which he almost took his own life. He said the club seemingly shut their eyes to what was happening, leaving Rafiq to feel as though he had “lost faith in humanity”.
Rafiq explained how he was left feeling like an outsider with no fellow players, coaches, or staff from a similar background to confide in who could understand his situation.
“There were times I did things to try and fit in that, as a Muslim, I now look back on and regret. I’m not proud of it at all”, Rafiq explained. For example, he goes on to say he was made to feel like he had to drink alcohol to fit in with the team and avoid being an outsider.
Rafiq reported to BBC Sport that a teammate used a racially offensive slur related to his Pakistani heritage.
How was it handled?
Only after Rafiq went public about his experience to “prevent anyone else feeling the same pain” did Yorkshire begin formally investigating the allegations in September 2020. Chairman of the club, Roger Hutton, also promised to look into the issue of racism in a broader sense within the club in general.
In November 2020, Rafiq gave his first statement to the independent inquiry carried out by the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. A separate employment tribunal was also launched by Rafiq himself, although no resolution could be made with the club.
Conclusions of the investigation
After receiving the results of the investigation in August 2021, Yorkshire said they would make a statement within the coming days. After 2 days of silence, the England and Wales Cricket Board asked Yorkshire for a copy of the investigation’s findings.
The following day, Yorkshire admitted that Rafiq had been the “victim of inappropriate behaviour” and offered their apologies; a phrase which somewhat watered down Rafiq’s experience. Only after the club was increasingly pressured by MPs did they release a summary of the findings on 10th September. They claimed they could not release the full report for legal reasons and the full report is still yet to be published.
There was supposedly insufficient evidence to prove that the club was institutionally racist, but 7 of the 43 allegations were upheld:
Halal food wasn’t provided for Rafiq during his years as a junior cricketer for Yorkshire. The club claims this has now been rectified.
Prior to 2010: 3 cases of former players using racist language which constitute harassment on the grounds of race.
Pre-2012: regular use of racist language by a former coach.
2016-2018: jokes made about religion made individuals feel uncomfortable about their religious practices.
2016-2018: Rafiq bullied by a former player due to his weight and fitness.
August 2018: club’s failure to follow its own policy and investigate Rafiq’s concerns of racism.
Multiple occasions before 2018: failure by the club to welcome Muslims into their stadiums. Disregard of the complaints of racist or anti-social behaviour in the stadiums.
After Rafiq questioned what the outcome of the report would be, what punishments had or would be issued, and the validity of the findings, Yorkshire were told to send the full report to Rafiq and his legal team. The club failed to do so within the deadline. After a week, Rafiq did receive a much-reduced version.
What has the response been?
October 2021 saw Yorkshire announce that no-one involved would face disciplinary action. However, just over a week later it came to light that a racist term referring to Rafiq’s Pakistani heritage had repeatedly been used which an investigation subsequently concluded was just “friendly and good-natured banter”.
What were the ramifications?
Following the latest developments, Yorkshire CCC have had to face the consequences:
● The chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee called for the Yorkshire board to resign.
● Several sponsors, including Nike, Emerald Publishing, Yorkshire Tea, Tetley’s beer and David Lloyd ended, or expressed their intention to end, any current deals.
The most recent developments show the worrying, yet perhaps unsurprising, extent of racism within cricket.
● 3rd November
o Gary Ballance, Rafiq’s former team-mate, claimed responsibility for some of the racist language used which he said he “deeply regret[s]”.
● 4th November
o England and Wales Cricket Board suspended Yorkshire from hosting international matches.
o Having been named in the report, Michael Vaughn also hit the news, saying “he completely and categorically denies” saying to a group of Asian players: “Too many of you lot, we need to do something about it”. However, other players have come forward saying they overheard this comment being made.
● 5th November
o Roger Hutton, Yorkshire chairman, resigned along with several other board members.
o After another player came forward claiming he was subjected to similar repeated racial abuse, Yorkshire CCC launched an investigation.
o Equality and Human Rights Commission announced it was looking into how Rafiq’s case was handled and establishing whether the law had been broken.
● Over the weekend of the 5th-6th November there were protests outside Yorkshire CCC’s ground, Headingley. Rafiq’s family and fellow fans were calling for the club to release the full report and for an end to racism in sport.
● 9th November
o Coach Andrew Gale was suspended for an antisemitic tweet he sent in 2010. The club said a statement would be made following a disciplinary hearing.
o The UK government announced that they are willing and ready to step in if no “real action” is taken by the ECB or Yorkshire CCC.
● 11th November
o Yorkshire Chief Executive, Mark Arthur, resigned.
What does this mean for cricket?
Following Rafiq’s bravery in making his experience at Yorkshire CCC be known, numerous other cases of similar abuse have been brought to the public’s attention. It seems that cricket, like many other sports, is facing a real issue with racism that needs tackling (why not check out our article on racism in football).
Secretary of the South London Sunday Cricket League, Jigs Charner, expressed his disappointment with the current state of the game, saying, "I think it is a tip of the iceberg where English cricket is at the moment".
Current England player Moeen Ali said he wasn’t surprised by Rafiq’s story and said he believed there were probably many other stories still out there waiting to be heard. And this isn’t the first racism scandal in cricket this year: in June 2021, racist and sexist tweets by bowler Ollie Robinson were found, who was consequently given an eight-game ban.
Rafiq described the situation as being about far more than just individuals, describing it as “institutional racism” that required extensive reform and an entire cultural shift. You can find out more about institutional, or systemic, racism here.
It seems there are not just issues at club level, but higher up too. Politicians have urged the ECB to act and criticised their investigation which was delayed by several months. The ECB’s idleness was also cited by Hutton who claimed that when he went to the board for help, they refused.
There has also been somewhat of a ripple effect since the Yorkshire cricket crisis began. For instance, Surrey released a statement calling on any member - employees, players, coaches and officials alike - to come forward if they “feel they have ever suffered racism or prejudice on any occasion during their time at Surrey CCC”. Though it should not have required a prod for any team to warrant publishing such a statement, nor should it be necessary in the first place, perhaps Rafiq’s incredibly brave whistleblowing was exactly what the sport needed and the first step in rectifying the racism and discrimination still rife in sport.
What’s still to come?
MPs will question Rafiq and numerous Yorkshire officials at the end of November. They have also been asked to attend a hearing with the DCMS select committee on 16th November.
The investigation also listed a number of recommendations and steps for the club to take. Yorkshire CCC stated they would “enthusiastically implement the panel’s recommendations”, which include reviewing policies and discrimination complaints procedures; employee training on equality, diversity and inclusion; and closer cooperation with local minority communities. It remains to be seen just how far they will go to remedy the situation, deal with the perpetrators, and ensure that there are no future recurrences.
On Tuesday 9th November, Yorkshire Cricket Club confirmed that the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC) had begun a ‘Call For Evidence’. We can only assume that no further sanctions will be issued or action taken until the validity of the first report has been evaluated and the subsequent investigations have published their findings.
England Captain and senior Yorkshire player Joe Root tweeted on 11th November: “We need to educate, unify, and reset…we, as a sport, all have to do more”.
This is just one in a number of racist sporting scandals to hit the headlines this year and there are, undoubtedly, many more behind the scenes. It remains to be seen how this will develop and what the consequences will be. Racism is, and should never be labelled, “friendly and good-natured banter”. An institutional, and societal, shift in mindset is required, and by starting a conversation, we can all help to incite positive change towards real equality and equity.
Edited by Amy Watts.