(Azeem Rafiq giving evidence to the UK Commons DCMS Select Committee. Photo: UK Parliament)

If you aren’t in Britain and aren’t interested in cricket, you might have missed the fact that the English cricket has been plunged into a deep crisis about its evident racism. The cricketer Azeem Rafiq—who has doggedly pursued a complaint about racism against Yorkshire County Cricket Club in the face of their repeated attempts to bury it—appeared in front of a House of Commons Committee to tell his story.

Many of the details are shocking, but what has been more telling has been the story of both the drumbeat of everyday casual racism, and everybody’s complicity in it. It’s difficult to believe, for example, that the then Yorkshire captain Gary Ballance thought it was acceptable in the mid-2010s to use the P***-word as a form of ‘banter’ between team-mates. (He hasn’t denied using the word).


And although the England cricket captain Joe Root (a Yorkshire player) gets a pass from Rafiq (“he’s never used racist language”), Root was clearly there when others were using it, without saying anything. Rafiq used this as an example of how normalised racist behaviour was in the cricketing culture:

And although the England cricket captain Joe Root (a Yorkshire player) gets a pass from Rafik (“he’s never used racist language”), he was clearly there when others were using it, without saying anything. Rafik used this as an example of how normalised racist behaviour was in the cricketing culture:

“You had people who were openly racist and you had the bystanders. No one felt it was important.”


His language about bystanders reminded me of a framework (downloads pdf of book, p47 of 140) that my wife Sue Robinson developed with a colleague, Suki Macpherson, to think about cyber-bullying when they were working with young people.

Anti-racism campaigns, like anti-bullying campaigns, tend to focus on the racists (or, equivalently, the bullies). But if you take a systemic view, the role of the audience is critical.

And taking a systemic view, all bystanders aren’t equal. There are four different types, and the mix determines the culture.

The audience

Starting closest to the bully, these are as follows:

  • The Sidekick: “The sidekick enjoys the bullying and encourages and exacerbates it from the sidelines… Their support and involvement sustains the bullying and enhances the self-esteem of the bully.” In Rafiq’s testimony, Alex Hales—who allegedly named his black dog ‘Kevin’ after a name used as a generic slur for black cricketers by Gary Ballance—comes across as a sidekick.
  • The Satisfied Watcher: “This person does not actively participate in bullying. They look on at the actions of the bully, reading posts, perhaps laughing and enjoying the experience.”
  • The Immobilised: “Often, this person is perplexed and worried about what is happening but feels immobilised to stand up against the bully and sidekick(s)… (they) often do not know how to act in response.”
  • The Active Critic: “Members of this group are likely to intervene to stop being bystanders and take action… They have feelings of shock, sadness or disgust, which provoke them to action.”

Finding a voice

In terms of the diagram, these four types range from left to right, with the Sidekick close to the Bully, and The Active Critic close to the Bullied. When there is an effective group of Active Critics, the Immobilised group can find a voice.

And it’s also worth noting that this doesn’t usually play out in private. There are always authorities in the system, who may, or may not, get involved:

The audience plays itself out between the bullied and the bully under the aegis of an authority or authorities who will have a tacit view of the degree of acceptability of bullying and a greater or lesser distance from its incidence (see figure).

As it happens, my wife had real problems getting to try this model in schools when she was doing this work. Only a small number were willing to challenge their cultures and their internal stories about bullying to do the work, although when they did it was effective. Most schools seemed to find it easier to issue (largely ineffective) statements about ‘zero tolerance’ than doing something that might also have reflected adversely on their cultures.

Being complicit

In terms of both Yorkshire County Cricket and the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board), it is pretty clear that Yorkshire was completely complicit in condoning racism, while the ECB chose to be too far away to make a difference. (It allowed Yorkshire to hold an internal inquiry into Rafiq’s allegations, because Yorkshire told the ECB that this was what wanted to do. Really.)

One of the issues here might be that elite sportspeople tend to need to bond around a set of norms to be effective as a competitive team—but that they’ve clearly bonded around the wrong set of norms. Yorkshire appears to be only the worst example of this, and that might just because Rafiq has been tough enough to see it through rather than folding.

But if cricket is going to fix this, the authorities and the players need to find ways to deter the behaviour of the sidekicks and watchers, and support the active critics. In a sport marked by a combination of significant privilege and institutional racism—4% of professionals are British south Asian, against 30% of recreational players—it’s going to be a tough process.


A version of this article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.