Policing the player

Ollie Robinson and others must not be made fall guys for failure to confront institutional racism

Days after England bowler Ollie Robinson was suspended pending an investigation into tweets seen to be racist and sexist, the England Cricket Board promised more action against other players who have posted questionable social media messages in the distant past. James Anderson has apologised for an 11-year-old message about team-mate Stuart Broad’s hairstyle. Even as more skeletal bytes are tumbling out or being excavated, the ECB has said that they will adhere to a zero-tolerance policy on racism and sexism. It’s a well-meaning stance, not just in the wake of the global “Black lives matter” movement but also in the context of continuing racism in the UK. Asian cricket players have spoken out against discrimination in certain counties, black footballers and cricketers have talked about systemic racism, and football teams taking the knee before games have been booed by the crowd.

However, a distinction must be made between grave charges of systemic racism and younger players’ indiscretions. Robinson was 18 at the time of his boorish tweets. Though that doesn’t offer him a free pass, unless investigations reveal a continuing pattern of racist and sexist behaviour, stern punitive action against him may not be called for. He and others like him may need to be sensitised and educated, not punished and alienated. Michael Holding, a West Indian cricket legend, has asked for leniency and forgiveness for indiscretions in the distant past, especially when a player has shown remorse subsequently, like Robinson has. Also, racism is far too serious an issue to be left to online mobs to play judge and delight in virtual vandalism.

There is another reason to caution against a performative wokeness. It allows the real culprits and racism in institutions like the ECB to go scot-free. Former England Under-19 captain Aseem Rafiq has said he contemplated suicide due to racism in Yorkshire cricket. Former England opener Michael Carberry has claimed racism ended his career in a club. Moeen Ali’s father despairs about the days when his son was asked to shave off his beard if he wanted to survive in the system. The staggering numbers of cricket-crazy Asian and black people who find access to higher forms of cricket blocked tell a story of their own. It’s these institutional failures that ECB needs to look into, but that would call for some hard introspection. Looking within isn’t for the weak-hearted, it can throw up ugly images. But only that can clean the mess.

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