The chairman of one of England’s most prestigious cricket clubs has resigned over its response to racism experienced by former player Azeem Rafiq.
Roger Hutton has left his post at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, acknowledging that the club “should have recognised at the time the serious allegations of racism” made by Rafiq in 2020.
Hutton “apologised unreservedly” to 30-year-old Rafiq. He said that YCCC had “a culture that refuses to accept change or challenge”, adding “I am sorry that we could not persuade executive members of the board to recognise the gravity of the situation and show care and contrition.”
A leading employment lawyer told Personnel Today that the case was a textbook example of a failure to properly investigate accusations of racist discrimination. Hutton’s resignation comes after an investigation found Rafiq was a victim of “racial harassment and bullying” – but the club initially said they would take no disciplinary action.
The failure to take action here despite the findings of discrimination suggest a real lack of leadership in handling these serious issues” – Natasha Adom, GQ Littler
He has been replaced as chairman by Lord Kamlesh Patel of Bradford. There have also been two resignations from the club’s board and a third that will be deferred until a transition to a new leadership team is complete.
Leaked material from the report published this week revealed that Rafiq had been subjected to racial slurs during his two periods with the club – a claim backed up by his former friend and teammate Gary Ballance in a statement on 3 November who said: “It has been reported that I used a racial slur and, as I told the independent inquiry, I accept that I did so and I regret doing so.” He added: “To be clear – I deeply regret some of the language I used in my younger years.”
On 3 November Rafiq tweeted: “I wanted to stress this is not really about the words of certain individuals. This is about institutional racism and abject failures to act by numerous leaders at Yorkshire County Cricket Club and in the wider game. The sport I love and my club desperately need reform and cultural change.”
Yorkshire had launched an inquiry in September 2020 after Rafiq made the allegations and asked an independent panel to investigate his claims. Among the panelists were specialist employment barrister Rehana Azib and HR consultant Helen Hyde.
In December Rafiq filed a legal claim “claiming direct discrimination and harassment on the grounds of race, as well as victimisation and detriment as a result of trying to address racism at the club”. An employment tribunal held in June 2021 in Leeds failed to find a resolution but remains open.
In August 2021 YCCC received the findings of the independent report and admitted Rafiq had been “the victim of inappropriate behaviour” and offer him their “profound apologies” but it did not initially publish the findings despite sending some of it to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) after a request.
Under increasing pressure to publish the report, Hutton, in September, said there was “insufficient evidence to conclude that Yorkshire County Cricket Club is institutionally racist” but the club released a summary of the panel’s report and recommendations, adding that the full report could not be released because of privacy law and the risk of defamation.
However, in October an employment judge ordered the release of the report – which Yorkshire failed to comply with. Instead, the club said it had carried out its own internal investigation after the findings in the report and concluded that “there is no conduct or action taken by any of its employees, players or executives that warrants disciplinary action”.
Earlier this week the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee called on Hutton to appear before it to answer questions about Yorkshire’s handling of the report into Rafiq’s allegations of racism. However, ESPN then published a story based on leaks about the report’s contents that said it had concluded that a racially offensive term used towards Rafiq was regarded as “banter”.
The ECB said this week that Yorkshire’s handling of the issue was “wholly unacceptable and is causing serious damage to the reputation of the game”. However, Hutton in his statement today (5 November) said “I was saddened when they declined to help as I felt it was a matter of great importance for the game as a whole.
“It is a matter of record that I have continually expressed my frustration at the ECB’s reluctance to act.”
MPs on the DCMS select committee will hold a hearing on 16 November and will evidence from Yorkshire officials and from Rafiq.
Meanwhile, the club has suffered severe reputational damage that has seen sponsorship deals withdrawn by Yorkshire Tea, Nike and Emerald Publishing. The ECB has also withdrawn international fixtures from Yorkshire’s grounds.
The club has a history of upheaval with stormy episodes over contracts and captaincy involving major figures in the game such as Brian Close and Geoffrey Boycott. Between 1968 and 1992 it operated a policy of only awarding contracts to players born within the historic boundaries of Yorkshire.
It is understood that former England captain and Yorkshire cricketer Michael Vaughan is also named in the report but he has denied making racist comments about Asian players.
According to Natasha Adom, senior lawyer, knowledge management and training director at specialist employment law firm GQ Littler, YCCC’s predicament is a “a classic example of a failure to properly investigate serious issues of discrimination from start to finish”.
“Firstly, there seems to have been a misunderstanding or misapplication of what harassment means.” While Azeem Rafiq was called a ‘P***, said Adom, which made him break down in tears, no action was taken because his teammates who had used the offensive terms did not understand they were causing offence.
“However, legally the intent of the harasser does not really matter here,” she said. “Whether behaviour amounts to racial harassment depends on whether the victim felt that they received unwanted conduct based on race which created a hostile or degrading environment for them and whether that feeling was reasonable.”
Joking about protected grounds such as race is risky ground” – Natasha Adom
Adom said there had been a failure to hold to account those responsible for harassment: “It seems incomprehensible that despite having found that some acts of discrimination and harassment did take place that no action was taken against those responsible for it. For example, Gary Ballance was only suspended [from selection by England] following a public backlash, suggesting a real lack of willingness to address these issues and hold individuals to account.
“The failure to take action here despite the findings of discrimination also suggest a real lack of leadership in handling these serious issues.”
She criticised the lack of transparency in disclosing details of the independent report and added that “banter” could often have a positive impact on workplace culture but “there is a thin line between that and harassment. Joking about protected grounds such as race is risky ground and the obligation sits with those engaging in it is to ensure that it is and continues to be consensual”.
How ‘banter’ is misused
For business psychologist and co-founder of Pearn Kandola, Professor Binna Kandola, close attention should be paid to the vocabulary of discrimination. He said: “Where someone is offended by the nature of the conversation, describing it as ‘banter’ minimises the impact it has had on the victim and serves to excuse the perpetrators’ behaviour. It can also move the focus of attention away from the person who said these things towards the target of the comments and their lack of a sense of humour. It is not uncommon for the victim to be asked whether they are ‘playing the race card’. By this quick and effective mechanism, the victim becomes the perpetrator and the perpetrator the victim.
Kandola warned that resignations and pledges for more diversity may be of limited use: “It will certainly reinforce how important these subjects are in organisations today. However, if it leads to people being anxious about discussing topics around race it will not make an effective long-term difference. We need to talk about these topics openly, and respectfully. We need to ensure that individuals are able to discuss it with all views being heard so that a greater sense of understanding can be reached.”
Rhona Darbyshire, partner and head of employment at law firm Cripps Pemberton Greenish said employment tribunals “rarely view banter as harmless or justifiable in any workplace and the prospect of seeking to defend an expensive and time consuming claim for discrimination and/or constructive unfair dismissal on that basis is never a comfortable position for any HR professional to face.
“This case really demonstrates the importance and value of HR professionals, stakeholders and executive teams embedding a culture in the workplace that is open and accepting of change and challenge.”