Mon, September 14, 2020

How should sports governance be updated to tackle racism and increase BAME involvement in sports?

How should sports governance be updated to tackle racism and increase BAME involvement in sports?

SR panel member Kwadjo Adjepong writes on how sports governance should be updated to tackle racism and increase BAME involvement in sports in light of the Black Lives Matter protests which took place this summer. The article specifically looks at:

  • Where do imbalances exist within sport?
  • The Sports Governance Code revisited
  • Commonwealth Games leadership review
  • What progress has been achieved to date?
  • Are there any steps that can be achieved easily?
  • Should the IOC revisit their guidelines which ban protests at Olympic Games? 
  • How should fines and punishments for racist abuse be handled in sport?

How should sports governance be updated to tackle racism and increase BAME involvement in sports?

The death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests which took place across the world this summer, have started a conversation as to whether sufficient progress has been made to address racism within society in general and sport in particular. The debate has considered a number of questions including, how as a society we need to change to enhance our commitment to anti-racism, diversity and inclusion. In addition, what specific action needs to be taken now to address this.

Following the protests, a number of people involved in sport, including athletes and players, reflected on their own experiences of racism and other forms of discrimination. Sports organisations including governing bodies, clubs, teams and others made public statements that racism within sport was unacceptable; expressing solidarity with the BLM movement, and making a commitment to review the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people at all levels of sport.

Where do imbalances exist within sport?

Recent events have led to the growing sense that the time for talking about ethnic diversity has passed and the time for immediate action has arrived. It has been broadly accepted that there is an urgent need to address systemic issues that result in racism, discrimination, inequality and ultimately a lack of diversity and inclusion.

Many sports organisations issued statements making commitments to address gaps in BAME representation. Gaps have been identified in participation, coaching, management, governance and leadership, including a lack of BAME representation on boards, panels and executive committees.

When considering participation in sport in general, research by the Sport and Recreation Alliance published in 2018 showed that four in ten of BAME participants have endured a negative experience in sport or physical activity settings; more than double that of white participants.[1] 

In addition, in relation to participation, research by the Summus Sports Group relating to the Rio Olympics revealed that Britain had all white athletes in more than half of the sports. Of the 366 British athletes that went to Rio, in total just 56 were ‘non-white’, but 41 of those came from just two sports: athletics and boxing. The Rio Paralympic Squads had 8 out of 19 sports with no BAME representation. As a former athlete, it is unsurprising that athletics was found to be one of the more diverse and inclusive sports, given the low barriers to entry such as the modest costs of participation. This can encourage diverse participation irrespective or race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or social class.[2]  

Gaps have been identified in other sports such as cricket in relation to participation, despite high levels of participation by people from a south Asian background. In 1995 there were only 33 black players in county cricket, by the 2019 season the number of black players had dropped to 9. In addition, Michael Carberry is the only black player born in Britain to represent England in a Test since 2004. In women’s cricket only 2 black players have been capped by England.[3]

Significant gaps have also been reported in sports governance, panels, executive committees and boards. Research by UK Sport and Sport England last year found that BAME people accounted for just 5.2% of board members across their 130 funded organisations.[4]

The Sports Governance Code revisited

In June 2020 the Sports Minster, Nigel Huddleston, said the time was right to revisit the Sports Governance Code (the Code).[5] Currently the Code only has a target for gender equality, which is set at a minimum of 30%. Subsequently, in July 2020 UK Sport and Sport England announced a review into the make-up of boards, in order for them to be more reflective of the UK demographic, which was cited as one of the key reasons for the review.[6]

The announcement regarding the Code’s review was welcomed by some sports organisations. It has been argued by Sporting Equals that a target of at least 20% BAME representation at board level is not only reasonable but also achievable when looking at the wide range of communities who fall under the umbrella term of BAME.[7]

Commonwealth Games leadership review

There are some other examples of a renewed commitment to change taking place.

In July 2020 the leaders of Birmingham's Commonwealth Games in 2022 pledged to act after being criticised for having a leadership team that failed to reflect the diversity of the host city or the competing nations. In an open letter to the city, the Chief Executive of Birmingham 2022 vowed to listen and learn from conversations with community leaders after it was highlighted the executive team and board of directors were almost all white. (All seven senior executives, and 12 of 13 board members running the Games were white).

As a result, the leadership of Commonwealth Games 2022 have promised to review the organisational structure and decision-making roles to ensure they are "more reflective of the people in [the] region." [8]

What progress has been achieved to date?

The public statements made by a range of organisations, including those referenced above, that the current situation is unacceptable and has to improve, is a positive first step and is unprecedented.

In order to build on these statements, urgent consideration must be given to recent reviews that have tried to tackle the scourge of racism, inequality and discrimination, such as:

  • The McGregor-Smith Review [9]
  • The Parker Review[10]
  • The Race at Work Charter[11]
  • The Race Fairness Commitment[12]
  • Sporting Equals Race Equality Charter[13]
  • The Middle Research Report – BBA Awards[14]

These reviews have made a number of valuable recommendations in relation to diversity and inclusion that require prompt implementation, however none have as yet resulted in sufficient progress.

The Sport & Recreation Alliance (SRA) recently published an open letter endorsed by over 100 sports bodies and organisations. While the SRA acknowledged that constructive work has already been started in an effort to increase boardroom diversity, including additional funding to tackle inequality and a number of projects to inspire inclusion, it added that this was just a start and there was more work to be done.[15] Systemic change must be made at all levels of sport in order for it to become truly reflective of society.

What is hindering further moves to increasing diversity? Charlotte Valeur, the Chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD), has challenged the notion that achieving greater diversity at board level is ‘too difficult’. Within a year of joining the IoD, the Chair has formed a board that is 50% female and 30% BAME. Given the lack of progress made by other organisations, she has suggested new laws may be required. She has also argued that in relation to the Sports Governance Code, ethnicity targets should be required.[16]

Are there any steps that can be achieved easily?

There are a number of steps that are very easily achievable, bearing in mind the recommendations that have been made in the reviews referred to above, for example:

  • The effectiveness of generic diversity statements should be challenged; concrete steps should be taken to implement diversity policies at board level;
  • At board level, within governing bodies, clubs and for participation, targets for BAME representation (and other underrepresented groups) with clear targets and timelines should be implemented;
  • Diversity KPIs should be implemented, ensuring accountability for the failure to meet targets;
  • Organisational change should be led from the top. Organisational culture should be analysed to ensure there is inclusive leadership, appropriate cultural awareness and a culture of dignity and respect. If necessary, a range of initiatives should be implemented including cultural awareness training (e.g. unconscious bias training), mutual mentoring and senior sponsorship of underrepresented groups;
  • Organisations should gather and publish data on diversity. This should include gender and ethnicity pay gaps, promotion, retention and attrition levels for BAME staff and other underrepresented groups.
  • Recruitment processes should be reviewed to ensure that employees are recruited from a diverse talent pool. Non-diverse shortlists should be rejected.
  • A diverse pipeline of talent should be nurtured, mentored and sponsored by the senior leaders and should be part of succession planning.
  • Organisations should establish an action plan as an objective measure of change.
  • A thorough review of the Corporate Governance Code should take place to consider boardroom diversity, including targets for ethnic diversity. Consideration should be given to targets and how organisations can be held to account.
  • In relation to the lack of BAME coaches and managers in certain sports – consideration should be given to adapting the Rooney Rule (which has been operating in the English Football League). This approach should be enhanced to ensure selection from more diverse talent pools with a greater number of BAME applicants, rather than shortlists that include a single BAME applicant.
  • Sports organisations should leverage the inspiration provided by BAME role models.
  • Organisations that procure services from third parties should use their economic power as a purchaser to demand those services are provided by diverse teams.

Should the IOC revisit their guidelines which ban protests at Olympic Games? 

It is inevitable, in the current climate, that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will need to revisit its guidelines regarding protests.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racist propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. The rationale for this rule is to focus on “athlete’s performances, sport, and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance”.

In 1968 when US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists, and Australian athlete Peter Norman wore a human rights badge, as part of civil rights protests, during the medal ceremony for the men’s 200 metres, the repercussions for the athletes themselves was severe. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) deemed the protest to be a political statement and Smith, the gold medallist, and Carlos, the bronze medallist, were suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. Norman, the silver medallist, was cautioned and at the time all three received significant criticism for their actions as being contrary to Olympic ideals. Ironically, now the three athletes involved in the protest are generally perceived as heroes and have received countless tributes as champions of civil rights that put principle before personal interest.

The reaction to Smith, Carlos and Norman has drawn comparisons with Colin Kaepernick, the American Footballer. Kaepernick played six seasons for the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League (NFL). In 2016, he kneeled during the national anthem at the start of NFL games in protest of police brutality and racial inequality in the US. Kaepernick became a free agent after the 2016 season and remained unsigned, which observers attributed to his political activism. In November 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL and its owners, accusing them of colluding to keep him out of the league. Kaepernick withdrew the grievance in February 2019 after reaching a confidential settlement with the NFL. Since then, Kaepernick has received a number of awards for his activism and commitment to civil rights. His protests received renewed attention in 2020 amid the protests that followed the death of George Floyd.

Parallels between 1968 and 2020 are obvious. However, in the US, the NFL changed their stance and will now allow players to kneel during the national anthem in the upcoming season. In England, the professional football authorities have given their backing to players who have chosen to ‘take the knee’ before kick-off.[17] Within football, rugby and Formula 1 (F1), governing bodies and leagues have worked with the players and athletes to find a mutually acceptable forum to protest. It is therefore important for the IOC to work with athletes to find an acceptable solution.

In January 2020 the IOC and the Athletes Commission published guidance concerning Rule 50.[18] Following this, in June 2020 the IOC agreed to consult the Athletes Commission regarding protests at Tokyo 2021, which is a move that has been welcomed by athletes. In addition, the International Paralympic Committee Athlete’s Council has launched a consultation on athlete protests ahead of the Paralympics next year. It is hoped that the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC’s) engagement with athletes before the Olympics next year will allow athletes to protest, on a case by case basis, at agreed forums, such as allowing athletes to make protests in designated areas, at press conferences or via social media. It is possible that the successful approach taken by F1 and football will provide the model for the IOC and the IPC to follow.

How should fines and punishments for racist abuse be handled in sport?

In October 2019 the Home Office published figures that confirmed a worrying trend that ‘hate’ crime (relating to race or ethnicity; gender, religion or beliefs; sexual orientation; disability and transgender identity) in the UK had doubled since 2013. Race hate crimes accounted for three quarters of these offences - 76%.[19]

These developments have raised the question of what the impact of this upward trend would have on sport. A recent BBC Sport survey reported that a third of elite sports women have encountered horrific trolling and abuse on social media.[20] Sport stars from a range of different disciplines, including football, cricket, tennis and rugby, have also highlighted the significance of racist abuse they receive on social media. In addition, in September 2020 ‘Kick it Out’, the anti-discrimination charity, revealed a 42% increase in reports of discrimination in English professional football in the 2019-2020 season, which it described as “shocking”.[21]

When racist incidents occur at football matches, governing bodies can launch investigations and issue punishments if evidence is found. The penalties include permanently banning racist fans or issuing fines. These sanctions have been challenged as to whether they are an appropriate deterrent for racist abuse, especially in European or international games.

Advocacy groups like ‘Kick It Out’ and ‘Fare’ have worked with the police, Crown Prosecution Service and Twitter to help to tackle this issue.[22] Fans are also encouraged to report abuse. Critics say that football authorities, should do more.[23] Other solutions, like deducting points from teams when fans commit acts of racism, have also been suggested. So far, however, few have taken that step.

In January 2020 The FA fined Hartlepool United after their fans racially abused black Dover Athletic players.  The punishment was decided by an independent regulatory commission, after the club admitted being guilty of breaking FA rule E20, by “fail[ing] to ensure its spectators, and all persons purporting to be spectators, conducted themselves in an orderly fashion and/or refrained from using abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour which included a reference, whether express or implied, to race and/or colour”. The FA warned Hartlepool as to its future conduct and fined them £7,500, with £5,000 of that figure suspended until the end of the 2020/21 season.[24]

As Paul Elliott, chair of the Football Association's inclusion advisory board, has said: "The FA has made huge strides in recent years to ensure that English football is a diverse and inclusive game, but we know there is more to be done”.[25]

In March 2019 Montenegro were handed a fine by UEFA for their fans racially abusing England players Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose and Callum Hudson-Odoi during a European Championship qualifier. Montenegro were given a £17,396 fine as well as a one-game stadium closure.

By comparison, UEFA punished Denmark international Nicklas Bendtner £80,000 for showing a Paddy Power logo on his underwear during a goal celebration in 2012 – more than the amount teams have typically been fined for racist abuse.[26] In addition, UEFA fined Besiktas FC £30,000 for a cat entering the pitch during a Champions League match, which was more than the fine (£17,396) that the Football Association of Montenegro received for its fans racially abusing England’s black players.

In July 2019 FIFA updated its disciplinary code to include tougher sanctions for racist or discriminatory behaviour. The minimum suspension for persons who engage in racist or discriminatory behaviour has been increased to 10 matches from 5 matches, for clubs whose supporters engage in racist behaviour, and there is a minimum fine of CHF 20,000 (c.£16,000). FIFA can impose a restriction on spectators and can now order a club or association to implement a prevention plan for repeat offenders. Referees can now also declare a match forfeited in the event of racist or discriminatory conduct. Additional punishments – such as stadium closures, bans and points deductions – may also be applied based on the seriousness of the case.[27]

Following Bulgaria fans making monkey chants towards a number of England’s black players as well as making Nazi gestures during a Euro 2020 qualifier against England in October 2019, the national team were given a two-match stadium ban as well as a fine.

Bulgaria’s next qualifier against the Czech Republic the following month was played behind closed doors, and they were also ordered to display a banner with the words “No to Racism”. While the speed of this decision was welcomed by the Fare, the anti-discrimination network, they expressed disappointment that Bulgaria were not expelled from the Euro 2020 qualifying competition. It appears that punishments that affect the individuals who engage with racist behaviour (including stadium bans and arrests) will have more impact in combination with points deductions and/or fines for teams or associations.


Although racism within sport may be a reflection of a problem that exists within wider society, given its high profile, sport has an important role to play in providing a solution. It will need to keep pace with recent events, and take a more pro-active approach to tackling racism, diversity and inclusion if it is to maintain its credibility.

Added to this, high levels of diversity and inclusion demonstrate good governance and has been shown to enhance the performance of sports organisations and their athletes and players. It is also simply the right thing to do.

The importance of moving from words to action has already been clearly set out in the reviews and recommendations discussed above. These recommendations now require urgent implementation if sport is to demonstrate that it is truly diverse, inclusive and positively anti-racist.


[1] Sport & Recreation Alliance Report, 2018

[2] The Telegraph 5 July 2020

[3] Sky Sports News, 13 August 2020

[4] BBC Sport, 11 June 2020

[5] BBC Sport, 11 June 2020

[6] BBC Sport, 12 July 2020

[7] The Voice, 14 June 2020

[8] Open letter from CEO, Commonwealth Games

[9] The McGregor-Smith Report 29 February 2017

[10] The Parker Report, 12 October 2017

[11] The Race at Work Charter, 2018

[12] The Race Fairness Commitment, July 2020

[13] The Sporting Equals Race Equality Charter, 25 March 2019

[14] Middle Research Report, 2020

[15] Sport & Recreation Alliance statement, 14 June 2020

[16] The Guardian, 8 March 2019

[17] The Guardian, 2 July 2020

[18] International Olympic Committee Rule 50 Guidelines:

[19] The Crime Survey for England and Wales, 15 October 2019

[20] BBC Sport, 9 August 2020

[21] BBC Sport, 3 September 2020

[22] The Guardian - 4 September 2019

[23] The Guardian - 15 October 2019

[24] BBC Sport, 31 January 2020

[25] BBC Sport, 3 September 2020

[26] BBC Sport, 18 June 2012

[27] FIFA Disciplinary Code 2019

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