Rugby World Cup : Positive Action in Sport


"The World in Union" might be the soundtrack of the Rugby World Cup but rugby is far from immune from the racial divisions and prejudices that bedevil many professional sports.  From the allegations raised by former Newcastle centre Luther Burrell, to an RFU survey this year which uncovered discrimination at every level of the elite game, rugby has a long way to go to tackle racism and other forms of discrimination.

With discrimination seemingly so embedded in the game, rugby clubs may be looking to radical measures to improve representation of under-represented groups.  Some might look to the success of the Rooney Rule in American football as an inspiration.  This is an NFL policy which states that league teams hiring head coaches and other senior coaching posts must offer interviews to ethnic minority candidates.  It has achieved considerable success in increasing the percentage of senior coaching posts held by African Americans.   

However, UK clubs should not assume that this practice can be emulated here.  Positive action to alleviate disadvantage or under-representation, or to meet particular needs, is permitted under the Equality Act 2010. However, when it comes to recruitment or promotion processes positive action can only be used as a tie-breaker between equally qualified (i.e. suitable) candidates.  As a result, the Rooney rule is unlikely to be lawful in the UK. Likewise, hiring quotas are usually unlawful (except where it's a requirement of a role that the person carrying it out has a particular protected characteristic). 

With the rules on positive action in recruitment so inflexible, clubs need to take a more holistic approach, focusing on other positive action which will help to build a diverse talent pipeline.  So, for example, setting up internal groups for staff from ethnic minorities, women, disabled staff, LGBTQ+ staff and other under-represented groups may help a club understand (and address) the challenges those staff face in progressing. It's also essential to gather data, to ensure that key priorities can be identified and benchmarks for success set. The RFU's survey earlier this year offers insight into the issues experienced by players and staff and makes for sobering reading.

Clubs should also look at barriers to participation at youth levels.  Since November 2021, we have been working with the Yorkshire County Cricket Club, which experienced a profound crisis in the wake of allegations of racism made by a former player, Azeem Rafiq.  One of their key areas of focus has been their youth talent pathway, where they have taken huge steps to identify and remove barriers to inclusion.  A key lesson from their experience is that tackling prejudice and disadvantage needs to be a root-and-branch exercise and needs to be undertaken with the long term in mind.  This was also a theme of the RFU's survey, which indicated that previous efforts to tackle discrimination in the game had been seen as performative and short-term. 

Tackling endemic discrimination in professional sports may feel like a momentous task.  Clubs should resist the temptation to focus on quick fixes or high-profile initiatives which fizzle out swiftly, and instead put in the hard yards needed to achieve long-term change. 

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