The benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace are now well established, with employers increasingly seeking to promote a workforce made up of a variety of people with different backgrounds, cultures, faiths and communities.

A recent initiative to bolster LGBTQ+ inclusion in an Australian rugby club through the unveiling of a new pride jersey, which led to almost half of the players boycotting a key match, exemplifies the difficulty of advancing progressive agendas in sport where athletes often have competing viewpoints and beliefs.

In this article, employment partner at law firm TLT Jonathan Rennie, explores steps taken by sports organisations to reduce discrimination and to support the development of equality in the sector.

Taking the knee

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragic murder of George Floyd in 2020 strengthened the meaning behind taking the knee as a form of protest against racism - one which has become the norm in football.

However, recent actions have suggested the meaningfulness of the gesture has waned. This is particularly seen in England, where football players have stopped taking the knee before the start of matches. Perhaps the rise of racially discriminatory incidents in sports, despite the renewed presence of social consciousness, hints at an explanation. Kick It Out, the anti-discrimination organisation, confirmed that during the 2021/22 season there had been a 41% rise in reports of discriminatory incidents in grassroots football compared to the last season before the pandemic. Whilst this suggests taking the knee might not have contributed to significant change, it also highlights how deeply rooted racism is in sport.

In Scotland, progress on this front appears to have slowed. In football, the national team sparked outrage at the Euro 2020 with its decision against taking a knee in most matches. Critics are remarking on the inconsistency of this stance compared to the team’s broader pledge to “tackle racism”[1]. The scepticism is compounded by recent findings of racism in other areas of Scottish sport, including cricket where the leadership has been criticised for being fraught with institutional racism[2].


Sexual consent training

Accounts of sexual misconduct in sport have been widely publicised in recent years, and it has become apparent that action is required from sporting bodies in order to combat incidents.

In August, the English Premier League introduced mandatory sexual consent training for players - a step forward but this needs to be followed by disciplinary action where there are equality and criminal breaches. Failing to integrate this second part of the approach risks tokenism and fails to effect real change. There have been reports of players continuing to play whilst under criminal investigation, which would not be the norm for other employees. Whilst opposition fans will criticise clubs for such actions, it seems that, in such a competitive sector, results can get in the way of equality practices. Some clubs have found this a tricky balancing act and have only acted in the face of fan and wider outrage.

Various action groups, including the End Violence Against Women Coalition, have signed an open letter to the Premier League demanding mandatory training. They are also arguing for the implementation of sexual misconduct policies and a charter for tackling gender-based violence. In Scotland there is not currently a similar approach to mandatory sexual consent training. However, one hopes that a nation-wide approach will be introduced, with all in the sports sector being held to the same standard. In order to align with the core elements of the law to prevent sexual harassment, athletic authorities should adopt a strong preventative approach which includes educating athletes and players on sexual consent and respect.

It’s interesting to note the approach taken by the Arizona Cardinals NFL team, which has a contractual requirement with its star player, Kyler Murray, that he undertake four hours of game study per week. Along with sexual harassment training, the question arises then as to whether mandated equality training could become a contractual term required of sports players.

Within the framework of national governing bodies, nation league structures and club rules it would seem an obvious opportunity for sports organisations to build in and demand equality training of participants both to meet legal requirements and to do the right thing.

Written by

Jonathan Rennie

Jonathan Rennie

Date published

14 September 2022


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