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Sport is not Innocent

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Sport so desperately wants to be on the right side of this, but as the scramble to say the right thing, at the right time slows down, the news cycle itches to move on, and social media is back to eating itself in excitement for the return of the Premier League, the chance for sport to use this wider awakening to reflect and confront the reality of our collective complacency is slipping through our fingers.

By Tim Harper | equitysport Founder & Chief Executive

For too long, too many in our industry, a lot of whom are acutely aware of its rotten core, have stood behind excuses for sport being the way it is - either claiming to just be a cog in a machine so great, nothing they do could possibly shift the levers of change; or wilfully and quite neglectfully, refusing to engage in dialogue or discussion on topics that sit outside their immediate sphere of expertise - I’m just an athlete, a player, a sports scientist, just a physio, a coach, I wear a tracksuit to work, I can’t do anything…

Give over, you mean, you won’t do anything to take responsibility, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

In response to vast swathes of those in our industry who have posted messages of solidarity, I’m sure many will welcome your largely newfound enlightenment and determination to put things right. But know this, despite desperate attempts from many in sport to construct an alternative narrative, you are not part of a moral, or upstanding industry by working in sport. Our work is not, by design, a force for good. You probably do not do enough, and collectively we certainly do not do enough.

Our jobs, our industry, the entire global sporting ecosystem, through neglect, and through complacency, continues to be built on foundation of exploitation, inequality, and on assumed and entrenched hierarchical supremacies based on race, gender, class, geography and even sexual orientation.

It’s an industry where people are dying, in their thousands, constructing stadiums for our mega events. Where thousands more toil in workshops making trainers for pennies in the most abhorrent conditions, quite literally as modern day slaves. An industry where black athletes all over the world have been, for centuries, commodified and fetishised - celebrating their athletic prowess whilst simultaneously stripping them of anything else.

It is an industry that remains the final refuge of outspoken and unashamed racism. On the football terraces we still hear monkey chants, not in isolated incidents, but consistently, across different continents, leagues and fan-bases. It’s an industry where our commentators and pundits, from tennis to athletics, are statistically more likely to speak of the physical attributes of athletes of colour, and not their skill or sporting intelligence.

And in sport’s backrooms, coaches offices and industry conferences, how many of us in Western Europe and in many other places in the world can count more than handful of colleagues who aren’t white, middle class, and largely still male?

It’s an industry that rivals even the most backward when it comes to unpaid labour through internships, all but closing the door to anyone that isn’t inherently privileged to start with - which in the UK at least, is disproportionately impacting those from BAME backgrounds.

It’s an industry where we accept that 33% of Olympic medalists in Team GB went to private school, compared to just 7% in the wider population. It’s an industry that accepts that football clubs can be owned by the most unscrupulous and corrupt individuals on the planet, as long as they fund a transfer market that makes the bankers in the city look like angels.

It’s an industry where we gloss over the active marginalisation of the gay community, where we accept that our female team athletes are labelled “butch”, “lesbians” or told to get back in the kitchen as a matter of daily discourse; one where we have created such a toxic environment, that in its entire history, no one has felt confident enough of the support to admit to being gay in the EPL.

So, to those vocally standing in solidarity with the black community whilst consciously or subconsciously feeding a system built on broken values, I say: hold your tongue. Don’t look to political or community leaders, or to other people to show you the way forward. Look critically at our own industry, look at our day-to-day - what can you DO today to stop the rot?

There is little question, that very few of us are equipped with the knowledge, expertise, lived experience, time, money or resources to single-handedly solve the society-wide pillars of injustice that have been brought into sharp focus over the past couple of weeks. But we all have unique skills and expertise that we have accumulated over many years that we can readily deploy, right now, today, to lift others, to tackle injustice in our own little world of sport, and do our bit to reform it to better serve everyone.

Audit the processes at your club or organisation, review your recruitment strategies, step out of your bubble of expertise, engage and support those less fortunate and privileged, question what has created our sporting ecosystem, how you have been supported by how the system is built, and how can we go about improving it to better serve others? Plough your efforts not into evangelising about sport or drinking the Kool-aid provided by sports brands and international governing bodies and their determined efforts to protect their innocence, but instead into delivering real change in keeping with the promised values of sport.

If you’re part of sport, you’re responsible for sport and the questions you should be asking yourself in light of recent events are: Are you proud of what we’ve created? What are you going to DO about it?

Join the movement to change sport for the better and to create a global sporting ecosystem that is truly inclusive, genuinely diverse and one that extends to opportunity everyone equally by adding your name to our online pledge HERE.

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