Racism in sport: Azeem Rafiq’s powerful testimony must be a game changer

I can still remember the first time I witnessed racist abuse.

Friday, 19th November 2021, 9:55 am

I was in second year at high school, and on the bus heading home.

As it pulled into its final stop at the end of Calder Road in Edinburgh, opposite the multi-storey where I stayed, the conductor, who was Asian, stood at the exit.

A boy in front of me, maybe two years older and bigger, turned and spat in his face.

Former cricketer Azeem Rafiq cries as he gives evidence at the inquiry into racism he suffered at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee on sport governance at Portcullis House in London. (Pic: House of Commons/PA Wire)

He smirked as it ran down the man’s cheek before heading off without so much as backward glance.

I stood frozen to the spot, clueless as to what to do or say. I felt sick.

I can still picture him as he stood silently and with immense dignity as he made sure we all got off before wiping away the spittle.

I can still see his face, his corporation bus uniform and the jersey he wore beneath it, but I can recall nothing about the scumbag who felt compelled to gob in his face.

School buses were terrifying to board at the best of times - if the choice was going upstairs or walking two miles in the rain, I’d opt to go home soaked to the skin - but this was stomach churning and sickening.

I recall the moment every time I drive past the bus stop when I’m in Edinburgh; a moment frozen in time which said so much of the ugliness of racism.

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It came back this week as I read the harrowing experiences of former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq who was a victim of racial harassment and bullying which left him isolated, humiliated, with thoughts of suicide, and which destroyed everything that is special about playing pro sport.

Yorkshire’s handling of the situation has been utterly lamentable.

It originally buried its own report, then issued an apology, suspended its head coach and saw some heads roll.

But even as its major sponsors deserted it and the club was banned from hosting lucrative international matches, you wonder if Yorkshire fully understood the deep-rooted damage done, let alone know where to begin changing the culture within.

The “it’s only banter” excuse is bogus.

Banter is when you are in on the joke – not the victim of it.

If any pro sports guys don’t understand the difference then they need to start educating themselves very quickly.

And It doesn’t need more reports and commitments to effect change. Clubs simply needs to listen - over and over if necessary - to the powerful, moving testimony of Rafiq, understand the devastating impact words can have when they become weapons, and then act.

Read Rafiq’s testimony and weep, get angry – but, for pity’s sake, do something to change this culture.

“I felt, isolated, humiliated at times. Pretty early on, me and other people from an Asian background… there were comments such as ‘you’ll sit over there near the toilets’, ‘elephant-washers’.

“The word ‘Paki’ was used constantly.

“There just seemed to be an acceptance in the institution from the leaders and no one ever stamped it out."

And you think this is solely a Yorkshire Cricket Club issue, think again.

I suspect – I hope – many more dressing-rooms will now be looking again at what has gone on behind closed doors.

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