Following a statement from the newly appointed chairman, Lord Patel, Ison Harrison explores the events surrounding Azeem Rafiq’s claims of institutional racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) and what this means from an employment law viewpoint.

The YCCC is facing widespread criticism following allegations from former player Azeem Rafiq about institutional racism at the Club, and how this left him ‘close to taking his own life’.

Rafiq has a very successful cricketing career under his belt, the majority of which was spent at YCCC. Now 30 years old, Rafiq was born in Pakistan and moved to England when he was 10. By 17 years old, he was Male Junior Sports Personality of the Year at the British Asian Sports Awards. Rafiq began playing for Yorkshire in 2008, and within two years he captained for England in the U19 World cup. Azeem Rafiq became the first captain of Asian origin for Yorkshire in 2012. He then took two years out from the Club following injuries and returned from 2016-2018.

A Rundown of Events from the Past Year

In September 2020, Rafiq stated in an interview with ESPN Cricinfo that he faced multiple forms of institutional racism during his time at YCCC. Following these claims, YCCC launched an independent investigation, the findings of which took over a year to be examined.

On 19th August 2021, the Club offered their sincere apologies to Rafiq and did admit he was the ‘victim of inappropriate behaviour’. In September, following findings in the report, the Club upheld just 7 of the 43 allegations made by Rafiq, claiming there was ‘insufficient evidence’.

In October, YCCC finally sent a late and heavily redacted version of this investigation to Rafiq. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) also asked to access the report to aid their own investigations of institutional racism.

On 28th October 2021, the YCCC accepted that there was ‘no question’ of Rafiq having faced racial harassment and bullying but concluded that ‘no action taken by any of its employees, players or executives warrants disciplinary action’. The Club’s lack of significance of the situation is further emphasised by claims the Club referred to the racist comments including the word ‘P***’ as just ‘friendly banter’.

Gary Ballance, a former teammate at Yorkshire, admitted using a racial slur against Rafiq and released a statement accepting responsibility, but also claimed the pair both passed inappropriate comments. Another Asian cricketer at Yorkshire also claimed he experienced many kinds of offensive racism at the Club.

The fallout from this case is affecting the Club significantly, and by November, many of Yorkshire’s key sponsors chose to end their relationship early including Nike, Yorkshire Tea and David Lloyd Clubs. By 4th November, the ECB suspended the Club, due to declaring the Clubs handling of the claims as ‘wholly unacceptable’. YCCC saw some major changes to its leadership the following day, where Chairman Roger Hutton stepped down and released a lengthy statement of apology. This was followed by two other board members resigning and a third to follow shortly. Lord Kamesh Patel was then appointed as the new director and Chairman of the Club.

The Latest Developments

8th November – Patel’s Statement

Just three days after his appointment as chair, Lord Patel released a statement at Headingley on 8th November. Patel thanked Rafiq for his ‘bravery in speaking out’ and praised him for being a ‘Whistleblower’. Lord Patel also understood the strain Rafiq and his family have undergone and insisted that what happened to him ‘must never happen again’. Patel then went on to say what he’d seen so far in the report ‘feels uncomfortable’ and that the year-long investigation was ‘flawed’.

Rafiq’s Reaction

The same day, Rafiq responded to Patel’s press conference, praising his swift action after being newly appointed just 72 hours before. However, Rafiq emphasised the need for the coaching staff to resign as they are a key part of the problem, and to make ‘make way for those who will do what is needed for the Club’s future’.

Rafiq has always insisted that he would not be silenced by a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) as his aim was to bring about change at the Club and wider society. This is commendable given that virtually all discrimination claims are settled with a NDA at the insistence of the employer. This avoids wider scrutiny of unacceptable conduct which is required if we are to see the change in attitudes and culture in workplaces and society.

The Hearing on the 16th

The next large milestone is on the 16th of November as MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee are holding an evidence session. This meeting is expected to expose more details and create a clearer picture of the racism encountered at the YCCC. Those who will be questioned include Roger Hutton, Chief Executive Mark Arthur and Director of Cricket Martyn Moxon.

Rafiq will also appear at the hearing but stressed that the purpose of the case was not about individual racist moments he experienced, but to address institutional racism and failures of the Club hierarchy.

A Yorkshire Employment Solicitor’s Perspective

This story is impacting far more than just Azeem Rafiq and Yorkshire County Cricket Club. It extends to cricket and sport as a whole, and workplace racism and discrimination in general in the UK. As such, Yunus Lunat from Ison Harrison discusses these events from an employment solicitor’s perspective, giving professional insight on the proceedings, its shortcomings and the wider implications.

Yunus also gave a speech at a protest outside Yorkshire County Cricket Club which you can watch here:

The Flaws of the Independent Investigation

The first thing that stands out when looking back at the developments in this case so far, is the approach to the independent investigation. The way Rafiq has been impacted is unfortunately not uncommon, and Yunus gives insight that ‘unfortunately internal investigations rarely provide justice for the complainant’. In regard to the yearlong period in which the investigation took place, Yunus is clear that ‘it’s unacceptable for Azeem to have been put through this for so long’. Yunus emphasises how badly an employee can be affected by voicing their experiences and pursuing a case like this against their workplace.

16th November – The Impact

Considering Rafiq made these allegations over a year ago, it may seem strange that Ballance has now admitted his part in this scandal. However, looking at the upcoming events, Yunus emphasises that the ‘Parliamentary enquiry (may be the) reason why people are coming forward … as they may be named in this enquiry’. Therefore Ballance is admitting his errors ahead of the fallout likely to happen after the DCMS hearing. This is also the reason why the Yorkshire County Cricket Club won’t have put Rafiq under pressure to sign the NDA as Rafiq will be allowed to speak freely without legal consequence in this hearing.

Institutional Racism – The Bigger Picture

These events unfurling currently highlight how racism still is very prominent, and the debate is far larger than what has happened to Azeem here. Yunus emphasises that ‘Ultimately this was a workplace for Azeem’ and the emphasis has to be ‘about making structural and cultural changes’ in the workplace.

However, Yunus praises the choice of Lord Patel as the Club’s new Chairman. Yunus emphasises that for organisations to change, leadership has a huge influence and, in this instance, ‘Lord Patel Is a positive appointment, when we look at role models’. The team he recruits and brings in is critical to the Club’s future change, Yunus says. The importance of ‘real opportunities in the workplace’ is highlighted by Yunus, who states employers need to ensure there is true diversity, rather than ‘token appointments’.

The impact of the hearing next Tuesday are likely to have far reaching implications than just the employees at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and hopefully this may continue to spark discussion on the wider problem of institutional racism still seen in the UK today.

Listen to Yunus’ recent interview on BBC Radio Leeds Breakfast here:

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