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Azeem Rafiq: There's nothing 'unconscious' about racism in sport

An FA panel has said John Yems is "not a conscious racist" - it's a familiar story of gaslighting victims and protecting perpetrators. 

January 20 2023, 11.11am

In 2020, I spoke out about the relentless racism I experienced - from teammates, coaches and staff - throughout my cricket career. I wanted accountability. I wanted justice. I wanted action to ensure that no other Black or Asian players would have to go through what I went through. Instead, I was gaslit, subject to attacks on my character, and ultimately driven out of the country as a result of death threats and abuse. My family and I are now living abroad because I no longer felt I could guarantee their safety in the UK.

I know that speaking out against institutional racism comes at a great personal cost. So, when I see how the FA is downplaying the testimonies of Black and Asian footballers who complained about former Crawley manager John Yems, I am both frustrated and deeply saddened. But not at all surprised.

I’ve been aware of the story since last summer. A number of League Two players took their grievances to the FA about Yems’ conduct and racist language. An investigation by an independent panel found that Yems had indeed used a string of racist remarks, from calling Muslim players ‘terrorists’ to asking Black players if they like jerk chicken and commenting on their skin colour. And yet, investigators concluded that John Yems ‘is not a conscious racist’. 

Is it possible to be an ‘unconscious racist’? It’s a tricky term to digest. But if you cut through the linguistic gymnastics being employed here, the tangible  result is  undermining the experiences of the  players who reported Yems. When my complaints were investigated, the panel initially told me I was a victim of ‘inappropriate behaviour’. Here, I see the same reluctance to call it what it is. The panel is making excuses for Yems, and deflecting instead to a discussion around his intentions. But this is a distraction from the toxic ‘locker room culture’ that enables racism to thrive in sport under the excusable guise of ‘banter’.

One person's ‘banter’ is another person's demise. These things are not banter. They’re not funny, for a start. But banter is a powerful label, and in the hierarchical world of sport this kind of behaviour is difficult to call out and easy to deny. For those on the receiving end of racism in sport, there is so much fear of speaking out - and I am proof that these fears are not unfounded. Sharing my experiences has had a deep and permanent impact on my life. My mental health took a battering. Being repeatedly disbelieved has left its scars. It has impacted my family and everyone around me. How do you put yourself back together after something like that? I only hope that the players who have spoken out against John Yems are receiving the support and guidance I know they will need.

The scariest thing about this situation is the lack of accountability. What was the process that led the investigative panel to make this damaging conclusion? How many people approved of its choice of  language, agreed that despite all of the evidence to the contrary it was OK to say John Yems is ‘not a conscious racist’? Are the people investigating the issue of racism in sport actually equipped to do so? This panel - the members of which have not been named in media reports - will go on to investigate other disciplinary issues and complaints - where are the questions about their efficacy? 

In 2022, we won a landmark decision to have a public hearing. This meant my complaints, and all of the reactions, analysis and decision making from the investigative panel were open to public scrutiny. I believe all such processes should be done in this way. There are currently too many closed doors, too many unanswered questions, and it is all too easy to hide what is really going on. Without better transparency, there will be two days of noise and outrage in the media, and then the institution will just crack on as though nothing has happened. No one will be held accountable.

In the last few years, professional footballers have been leading the way in advocating for anti-racism and inclusivity in the sport. There is power in those athletes at the top of their game speaking out, and I hope to see some big names vocalising their support for the victims of abuse. But real, lasting change has to come from even deeper on the inside. If leadership gets it, then things will get better. Unfortunately, sporting institutions and governing bodies clearly don’t see this as a priority. A lot of organisations talk the talk, but nothing changes, because those at the top don't want to address the issues. 

I don’t regret speaking out about the racism I experienced in cricket - the insidious, damaging culture that makes it harder for Black and Asian players to succeed. I am determined to continue unapologetically calling it out, no matter the cost, no matter how draining it is. But I often question whether sport - the people who hold the power - actually believe there is anything wrong with the type of language that Yems used. And I am positive, from my experience, that there will be a lot of people within football and within dressing rooms in many sporting environments who will be feeling sorry for the perpetrators, which is a scary place to be.

As told to Natalie Morris.


It’s Not Banter, It’s Racism by Azeem Rafiq will be published on 4 May and is available to pre-order now (Trapeze, £20).