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Tackling racism in sport - the time is now

As we close out a month where racism in sport was placed under the spotlight, our director for equality, diversity and inclusion reflects on how discussions and good intentions now need to transform into actions.

27th March 2024

by Viveen Taylor
Director of equality, diversity and inclusion, Sport England

On Friday 1 March, the home country sports councils convened national governing bodies and active partnerships, along with over 200 online delegates, to put racism in sport under the microscope and directly challenge and provoke CEOs and senior leaders to take ownership of their own anti-racist journey.

This requires leaders to firstly accept there are embedded structural and systemic barriers that exclude diversity and that as such, being intentionally anti-racist may feel uncomfortable.

A day of compromise

The morning kicked off with a thought-provoking keynote address from Chris Grant OBE, who shared an insightful and personal analogy: "If weeds are left unattended, and not uprooted, they prevent flowers from blooming."

The weeds represent racism (systems/people) and uprooting them frees space for new and different flowers (Black and Brown people) to continually bloom.

This was followed by a simple three-step guide for leaders to reflect upon and step into action – the ABC:

acceptance/acknowledgement that racism is in the system, the need to be proactive in removing the barriers and blockers to progress and grow, and to create the necessary culture change that asserts race equality as the norm.

His session concluded with a plea for leaders to be active in creating inclusive environments and to condemn racist behaviours quickly, whenever and wherever they show up in the system.

A group of panellists, including Sport England's CEO Tim Hollingsworth, discuss ideas during the Time for Action: Tackling Racism in Sport conference in March 2024

The five CEOs shared their own vulnerabilities during a panel session where they surfaced their leadership commitments to tackling racism and spoke of their own personal and professional challenges to being demonstrably anti-racist.

The panel discussion also debated the notable increase in hate crime towards Jewish communities, some of which is playing out in sport.

This was presented in full recognition that addressing anti-semitism must work hand-in-hand with tackling Islamophobia too.

The CEOs acknowledged these very real issues as racism and also committed to taking further action, including the creation of meaningful data sets to sit parallel alongside TRARIIS and the five themes for action highlighted in the original report

Leaders need to firstly accept there are embedded structural and systemic barriers that exclude diversity and that as such, being intentionally antiracist may feel uncomfortable.

The TRARIIS Advisory Group continues to work with the sports councils to co-design solutions and check and challenge our plans and actions around anti-racism.

They do so as a valued group of Black community leaders who continue to give their time and expertise to ensure that the sports councils remain grounded in the issue of tackling racism in our sector by working with us to deliver on our commitments.

For far too long we have tinkered around the edge of racism, promising always to do better and to create inclusive environments where Black and Brown people can feel safe, welcome and fully involved in our sector.

Yet we know that the experiences of many culturally diverse communities don’t reflect this narrative as they continue to report distressing instances of racism, hence exposing a broken system that’s almost refusing to mend itself.

UK Sport shared the findings of their World Class Programme athlete data analysis.

This highlighted a lack of strategic investment at the grassroots level, which is stifling talent at the elite end of the spectrum.

The result? Limited to no cultural diversity in some sports and on the national and international podiums of major sporting events like the Olympics and Paralympics.

Our legacy for change

For many the fear of saying the wrong thing is real but using the right language is part of the race-equality journey.

How we refer to, speak about and engage with culturally diverse people on all our platforms is critical.

HTVB's management consultant Hayley Bennett delivered a Let’s Talk About Race session where she explained why not being considered in our language can inhibit the engagement we seek and creates barriers.  

Delegates were moved from a position of discomfort and disillusionment to one of confidence and motivation to be better in their communications about race equality.

Jason Fergus, director of Active Essex and one of our board members, facilitated a powerful workshop highlighting how, as a collective, the active partnership CEOs put their words into action following the murder of George Floyd.

Very quickly they mobilised, beyond posting a collective statement, convening all CEOs to dedicate efforts to tackling racism and racial inequality in sport through six commitments, including using insight, reach and influence to change systemic factors holding current racial inequalities in place.

For the first time in a long while I felt a wave of acceptance that race equality is not only preventing culturally diverse communities from enjoying the benefits of sport and physical activity, but that it continues to exclude grassroots talent and qualified leaders from our sector.

CEOs and leaders within the margins of the day thanked the project team, the TRARIIS Advisory Group and the CEOs for convening the sector to listen to why racism can no longer be an ignored topic.

There was nothing new or innovative delivered from the conference itself, as what every speaker, presenter and panellist shared was a well-presented repeat of an age-old story of racism, and its continued negative impact on the sector.

However, every single person clearly stated the need for immediate action, which offered a different and more positive ending to the story.

It’s a simple request for leaders to be inclusive, to follow the data and insight to diversify the workforce and give skilled leaders from Black and Brown communities the opportunity to bring their brilliance and vision to a sector, which is crying out for change.

But ultimately, we each need to stand proud in our anti-racist journey and determine for ourselves what our own legacy to change will be.

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