The Conversation

Yorkshire County Cricket Club: ways that organisations might try to neutralise racism accusations

In the wake of accusations of racism made by former player Azeem Rafiq, Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) has announced plans to find more diverse talent, including through partnering with a South African cricket club. This follows other changes including the replacement of the coaching staff, the resignation of several senior figures, and the establishment of a whistleblowing hotline to allow people to safely report discrimination.

However, as the club contemplates the new season a couple of months away, it still has some questions to answer about how it responded to the claims of racism when they first emerged. It initially failed to take action on receipt of a report into the allegations. It also said that there was no reason for any disciplinary action.

In over two hours of evidence on November 16 2021, Rafiq told parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee that from early on in his time at the club he was subject to personal racist abuse. He said that during his two spells at the club he had faced repeated racist comments from senior players, and suggested that racism had become normalised at the cricket club.

When Rafiq first made allegations of institutional racism at YCCC in September 2020, the club asked a law firm to investigate. But the club has been criticised for how that investigation was set up and for its response to the report.

This initial response shows how corporate and public bodies can try to neutralise uncomfortable allegations of institutional racism. Anti-racism policies are part of the working of many major organisations. But denial of racism and failure to take action against it seemingly remains a problem.

Neutralising racism claims

Neutralisation techniques are sometimes used to minimise the guilt or shame of wrongdoing. Blaming the victim is one such technique, used to make the victim seem less sympathetic or somehow suggest that they are at fault.

Other techniques are denying that there has been injury, turning attention on those raising the condemnation (by, for example, questioning their motives), or appealing to higher loyalties – suggesting that a wrongdoer’s actions were in defence of a group to which they belong.

Denial and other neutralisation approaches are often used by individual offenders seeking to justify their actions. However, they can also be used by corporations.

Such techniques are a way of minimising the seriousness of allegations and the need to take action when faced with evidence of problem behaviour or attitudes within organisational culture. They are seen routinely in criminology with offenders or when organisations are faced with difficult questions about racism and complicity with racism or injustice.

In the Yorkshire case, the independent review upheld seven of 43 allegations made by Rafiq. However, derogatory comments made about Rafiq were dismissed by Yorkshire as “banter”, and the club announced that no players or staff would face disciplinary action as a result of the findings. This arguably can be seen as an example of the neutralisation technique of denying that injury has been caused.

The DCMS committee wrote to YCCC about the club’s failure to make the report public. Yorkshire’s reluctance to do so (the club did release a summary) could be seen as an “appeal to higher loyalties” that speaks of a need to protect the club and the wider game.

In a similar fashion, some staff at Yorkshire who wished the club to mount a more robust defence against the claims of racism allegedly accused Rafiq of being on a “one-man mission to bring down the club”.

The letter by Yorkshire staff also allegedly claimed that Rafiq was “problematic in the dressing room” and referenced “endless episodes of Azeem’s behaviour, well-known to the club, which reflect on him as a person”. This may seem an example of both victim blaming, suggesting that Rafiq in some way “deserved” his treatment by the club, and an attempt to turn attention back towards the accuser by focusing on his character.

Recognition and Redress

Concerns about racism in cricket are hardly new. More than a third of the black, Asian and minority ethnic players who responded to a recent survey carried out by the Professional Cricketer’s Association (PCA) said they have experienced racism in the game.

Before any meaningful change can take place, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and individual clubs need to move away from denial about the extent and nature of cricket’s racism problem. They need to put in place measures that will adequately deal with allegations of racism and any proven existence of racism. The whistleblowing hotline at YCCC reportedly received 36 calls in its first week of operation.

But a challenge remains for both the ECB and individual clubs in ensuring that players and staff can raise complaints related to racism or other forms of discrimination without facing denial and defensiveness. What’s more, these complaints must be effectively investigated and dealt with when they are raised. The ECB has launched an independent commission for equality and has recently met with the PCA and other groups to determine how to tackle discrimination in cricket.

How organisations make redress when presented with allegations of racism, or even evidence that indicates that they may have a racism problem, is vitally important. Sometimes a simple apology is a crucial first step, recognising how individuals and groups have been affected. But, more often, complaints are met with deep seated denial about the extent of any problem, combined with victim blaming.

If organisations are to act and fix these problems, they need to be willing to do so before they are somehow forced into action.

Yorkshire County Cricket Club did not respond to an invitation to comment on this article.

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Angus Nurse does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.