soccer field

Discrimination in sport: What progress has been made and what is being done?

September 15, 2022

In August 2022, Premier League captains announced that, ahead of the new season, they would no longer routinely take the knee ahead of each match, opting instead to use the anti-discrimination gesture on “specific moments” throughout the season. Whilst many saw this as a set-back, particularly in light of the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship where players received abuse both on and off the pitch, others have praised the Premier League, and professional sport as a whole, for their efforts in tackling racism and discrimination in society. This blog, continuing on from our series on regulatory issues in sports, will consider the progress that has been made to tackle discrimination and also the initiatives being implemented in the professional sporting world. 

How much progress have sports organisations made and what are they doing?

In April 2022, UK Sport, with the four Home Country Sports Councils (Sport England, Sport Scotland, Sport Wales and Sport Northern Ireland), released the final report in the Tackling Racism and Racial Inequality in Sport Review (TRARIIS). 

The report makes clear that racism and racial inequalities still exist within sport and that there are longstanding issues, which have resulted in ethnically diverse communities being “consistently disadvantaged”. Commenting on the report, Sport England said “We want to see increased representation at all levels of sport, whether that’s in participation, administration, volunteering or recruitment.” It is clear that there is still further work to do. 

In September 2020, serious allegations of racism and bullying were made against Yorkshire Cricket Club by former player, Azeem Rafiq. These serious allegations, some of which were subsequently found to be true by an independent report, sparked a culture of change in English cricket. On 31 May 2022, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) published its third update on the implementation of cricket’s action plan to tackle racism and promote inclusion. The update confirmed that the county cricket network has now exceeded its Board diversity targets, with an overall figure of 31 per cent female representation on Boards and 16 per cent ethnic diversity, up from 20 per cent and 10 per cent since November 2021. The ECB has also made progress within cricket grounds themselves to create a more inclusive environment. The report comments that “The ECB is making available £2.5 million of funding to support facilities development, with an initial focus on multi-faith quiet rooms, changing facilities, family toilets, accessible seating, and sensory rooms.” It is clear that the ECB is continuing to take steps to address racism and create a more inclusive (and representative) sport. 

However, it is important not to disregard the progress that the sporting world has made to date. Gender-based discrimination, especially sexism, has been a prevalent issue in many sports series in the past, for example in women’s football. On 31 July 2022, England’s women’s national team became European champions. This historic win marked the landmark progress that women’s football has made in recent years. A decade ago, some female players were forced to hold second jobs in order to fulfil their sporting ambitions. Today women’s football is thriving with attendance, viewing figures, sponsorship and salaries all rising. In fact this year’s attendance at the UEFA final at Wembley marked the highest ever attendance at a Euros tournament with a staggering 87,192 fans. 

How are sports organisations continuing to make progress in tackling discrimination? 

Sports organisations are committed to improving diversity through their equality initiatives, with the most observable progress being made ‘on the pitch’. From the start of the 2020 season, Formula 1 (F1) and its governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), has run the “We Race As One” slogan on all cars in the championship. In addition, certain athletes play their role in removing discrimination, for example four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel racing with a ‘Pride’ themed helmet in the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix and Lewis Hamilton establishing the Hamilton Commission seeking to improve “representation of Black People in UK Motorsport”. 

In English football, players also wear the “no room for racism” slogan on the right arm of their kit. Off the pitch, however, their anti-discrimination initiative reaches much further. The league has introduced an online abuse reporting system to support players, managers and family members who receive abuse. The system reviews each incident and, wherever necessary, follows up with either the relevant authorities or social media platforms. On social media regulation, the Premier League, alongside the FA, English Football League (EFL), Kick it Out (an anti-discrimination charity) and several other non-governing bodies, sent an open letter to Facebook and Twitter calling for increased filtration, “operate robust, transparent, and swift measures to take down abusive material”, and “an improved [user] verification process”. The integrity of the system implemented by the football leagues has been recently tested with Crystal Palace defender Joachim Andersen suffering abuse and threats on social media following a match between Crystal Palace and Liverpool FC. After identifying the abusive messages, Andersen reported the abuse to the police. However, the EFL has called on the government to step-up in respect to social media regulation. It is clear that much work remains to be done in this area.   

Away from social media, at a ‘grassroots’ level, the Premier League is committed to investing in educational resources. Through its Premier League Primary Stars programme, 18,000 primary schools in England and Wales can access free resources that highlight “diversity, equality and allyship”. 

As evidenced throughout this article, major leagues, across different sporting sectors, have chosen both long and short-term strategies, seeking to eradicate discrimination at the lowest level whilst also promoting diversity amongst current teams and athletes. Whilst there is still much to be done, the work that teams are doing is having a large impact, not only in driving out prejudices, but in raising the profile of anti-discrimination initiatives more generally and, perhaps most importantly, showing a generation of children that the professional sports industry is a diverse place to be. 

This blog is the latest in a series of blogs addressing a number of regulatory issues in the professional sporting environment – please also view our previous blogs in this series.

The authors would like to thank Jake Burke, Norton Rose Fulbright solicitor apprentice, for his assistance with this blog post and series.