An Inconsistent Code for Sports Governance

Two days prior to the release of the Code for Sports Governance formulated by Sport England and UK Sport, the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation (MWSF) received an email about an incident that took place in the UK. A female Muslim basketball player getting ready to play in a local league game was prevented from participating unless she removed the clothing that covered her arms and legs. In the words of the coach, “the referee was very vocal in front of this player who was left in tears and had to leave the venue.” The team considered forfeiting the game due to their surprise and disgust at this blatant discrimination. They could have raised the matter with the league, except the head of the league was the very referee who had enforced this on the player and left her distraught.

This is just one example of the cases we at the MWSF hear about and the frequency of such cases is increasing greatly. Whether it’s bans on the hijab in basketball, football and judo, or swimming preventing full body suits being worn for religious reasons, the list seems never ending. The MWSF began a revolution in sport at its inception in 2001. We wanted to see Muslim women in every area of sport. It seems that, unfortunately, the sports industry was and is not ready to receive them, despite its constant cry of wanting to ensure that sport is for all.

These cases are just more recent forms of age old concerns in relation to discrimination that those from minority communities have faced throughout society, including the sports industry. In 2009, a review carried out for Sport England, UK Sport and other sports bodies found that the prevailing whiteness of the institutions and culture of sport results in a lack of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) involvement in all areas of sport. And yet, in 2016, when a new Code for Sports Governance is established promising to be “ambitious in setting high expectations”, the institutions we trust with ensuring sport is for all fall way short again.

Two days after the release of A Code for Sports Governance, a report was produced on FTSE100 boardroom diversity which noted that Britain’s public companies are not representing the diversity of the UK and should have at least one non-white director by 2021. The review into the Ethnic Diversity of UK Boards lasted almost two years and its recommendations are fully endorsed by Government ministers. The report also encouraged the FTSE250 to appoint at least one Board member of colour by 2024. It appears that the business world has learned that aspirational targets are needed to create change and yet the sports world is leaving itself behind.

As someone who has worked in the City as a CA, I was delighted at the prospect of a “gold standard” Code for Sports Governance towards which all areas of sport should aspire. We had already received a fresh and relevant sports strategy from DCMS that challenged the sector to meet the needs of its people in new and innovative ways. This was followed by an impressive Sport England strategy that focussed on the customer and bringing sport to the people it serves. This Code would bring it all together because we know that the tone is set at the top.

It is undoubtedly a robust Code overall which will bring the sports sector on a journey towards the best governance structures and processes. I fully advocate and support the focus on transparency, integrity and robust organisations, as well as the strong focus on gender diversity and representation on Boards. However, reading through the Code, the inconsistency in its treatment of the protected characteristics is glaringly obvious.

The pace of progress in bringing about ethnic diversity in sports administration, management and governance is painfully slow and this Code for Sports Governance has highlighted that progress in unlikely to be sped up by our institutions until they themselves shift in mindset and action. I am extremely supportive of every initiative which seeks to gain greater gender representation. I would stress that there is an equally compelling argument for the other strands of equality to receive the same focus and priority. One strand of equality should not be simply placed ahead of another due to personal preferences or assumptions, and yet what this Code is effectively saying is that those of us who fall in the rest of the protected characteristics must wait our turn. We’ve waited long enough.

We rise and fall together in all areas of life, and especially in relation to inclusion. That begins with the tone that is set from the top, including Codes for Governance that seek to be gold standard.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that history has shown in relation to the quest for gender equality in sport that soft approaches have not worked. For years, sports organisations were asked to “consider publishing a statement of intent” in relation to their gender diversity goals, to produce policies and procedures in relation to gender equality and to produce data and next steps to achieve greater gender diversity. The previous voluntary code even set a target of 25% women on Boards and that was far from being achieved. Recent history has therefore proven that this approach does not work, and yet this is the approach that this new Code is taking in addressing the lack of BAME representation on Boards.

What is clear from the cases that the MWSF and I personally hear on an increasingly regular basis is that those who make decisions on such critical matters are not aware, or worse still are not concerned about, the impact that their decisions have on the everyday person – that individual who should be smiling, laughing and competing on a basketball court is instead leaving it in tears. Boardrooms must be inclusive of all communities if we are to prevent such incidents from occuring. This begins with developing stronger representation of ethnic minorities within the industry through individuals and organisations who will be strong adovocates rather than accepting of inconsistencies.

This all comes at a time when there is clear evidence that discrimination, prejudice and hate are on the rise in developed societies. Sport should seek to lead the way in combating such intrusions. My hope is that we will not merely be consoling each other about these ordeals, rather that we seek to find the solutions to overcome them.