three men standing in a stadium

ACE Programme

‘I don’t think you know that black lives matter’: How cricket found a critical moment to address its institutional racism

Cricket became the first sport back after the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and used the moment to connect with Black Lives Matter.

 

Jeremy Blackmore

IRL

Posted on Jan 6, 2023   Updated on Jan 6, 2023, 4:08 pm CST

In the summer of 2020, cricket became the first international sporting event to be held during the pandemic, broadcast from a bio-secure venue at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, England. Yet the live action, dramatic as it was for a world starved of sports, was not the sole defining moment. 

A brave and powerful film, aired during a lengthy rain delay in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, resonated far beyond the sport, finding a worldwide online audience well beyond those watching the live broadcast. It has had a profound impact since, starting a painful but necessary discussion about racism in cricket.

Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to play for England, and Michael Holding, a West Indies fast bowling legend, bared their souls in a remarkable 15-minute film for the Sky Sports Cricket channel, speaking movingly about their personal experiences and demanding an end to institutional racism.

The film was followed by an extraordinary live interview with Holding in which he talked about the need for education to address the origins of the ‘dehumanisation of the black race’. Sky made Holding’s interview instantly available to the widest possible audience via its online channels with the full version uploaded onto YouTube.

Meanwhile, an edited clip Sky put out spread rapidly, attracting more than seven million views on Twitter alone and eliciting messages of support from sports stars from Thierry Henry to Martina Navratilova which amplified it further. The response prompted urgent calls for change within the game.

“We are all human beings,” Holding noted, “so I hope people recognise the Black Lives Matter movement is not trying to get black people above white people or above anyone else. It is all about equality. When people say, ‘all lives matter’ or ‘white lives matter’, please, we black people know white lives matter. I don’t think you know that black lives matter.”

Rainford-Brent added, “It can’t be a ‘black person’s problem,’ it has got to be everyone’s problem. We have got to want a society that is representative and supports people from different backgrounds. That’s what it is for me. We need honest conversations, opportunities, and people in positions of power. And then we can change the landscape.”

It was a watershed moment for cricket. Not for nothing does Sky’s Director of Cricket and NFL Bryan Henderson describe it as one of the finest moments in the company’s history.

‘If you don’t get it, sit this one out’

The film had its genesis in a remote Microsoft Teams call during the early stages of the pandemic. At first, in the absence of live sport, Sky’s commentary team organized live watch-a-longs of classic matches, vodcasts on YouTube, and podcasts to keep subscribers entertained.

Then the horrific death of George Floyd, on May 25, 2020, sent shockwaves around the world.

Organizations were considering their response to the growing protest moment. Many posted black squares and stopped online activity in solidarity. Henderson wanted to address the unhappy sentiment from some Sky employees that Sky, as a company, had not taken enough action. He invited Rainford-Brent to speak from the heart and “tell us how it is” on their next Teams call.

What followed was an outpouring of emotion to her colleagues.

“Clearly, there was this bottled-up unhappiness, anger, and frustration, and it came out on the call,” Henderson recalled. “She got very emotional, very upset. She spoke about racism in life. She spoke about racism in cricket, and why the death of George Floyd resonated so much, why she had to go on the marches, why she had to go out and protest, why that was so much more important to her than a pandemic while the rest of us were lost in our little worlds and feeling sorry for ourselves about home-schooling and all these personal problems at the time.

“She basically bared her soul for 15 minutes. There were tears. It was just a very emotionally charged call. She spoke beautifully. She spoke from the heart. At the end of the call, I said, well, guys, if we don’t get it now, we never will.”

Her teammates inundated her with messages of support and Henderson assured her it was what they had all needed to hear.

With Rainford-Brent’s words fresh in Henderson’s mind, the idea for the VT crystallized during an evening walk on a remote Scottish beach near St. Andrews where his family was staying during lockdown. Listening to former England rugby union star Will Greenwood’s Sky Sports podcast, he heard special guest American athlete Michael Johnson talk about the protests in America. The challenge Johnson laid out struck a chord.

“What he said really resonated with me. He basically said, ‘Look, if you don’t get it, sit this one out. And if you’ve got a voice, whatever that voice is, you are complicit in all this if you don’t use that voice to help shape the future.’

“I then thought about the voice Sky Sports Cricket has, and the small element of control I have over that voice. I thought we should do something; the time is right to try to deal with this on air.”

Holding was due to arrive in Southampton as part of the commentary team for England’s Test Match series against the touring West Indies. Henderson knew how passionate the Jamaican was about the issue and approached him and Rainford-Brent to ask if they would be willing to put their thoughts down on camera, working with a small team under Rob Noonan and James Wilson.

He checked in again with Rainford-Brent before the broadcast to ensure she was happy.

“She’d seen the film. She showed it to her mum. I think her mum said, ‘Look, it’s just time to talk, it’s your responsibility, you’ve got a voice, you’ve got a platform.’ Ebony was definitely nervous.”

‘The eyes of the cricketing world were on us’

There was no play before lunch on the opening day of the five-day Test Match at Southampton. With more than two hours of airtime to fill, Henderson considered his options. Debating usual topics such as players’ techniques before segueing into a powerful film on Black Lives Matter clearly would not work. So, after a simple introduction to the show, they went straight into the VT, followed by an extended socially distanced outdoor interview led by anchor-man Ian Ward with Holding and former England captain Nasser Hussain.

Rainford-Brent was in the commentary box with Henderson who monitored reaction on social media. It was instantaneous and overwhelmingly positive and resonated far beyond cricket. Sky also made the full film available on YouTube while a clipped version was shared widely on Twitter.

Henderson recalls: “Ebony was a ball of nerves. We tried to reassure her but I kind of understand why she was so nervous about it looking back. We got into the film, and all of a sudden, the phone started pinging. What I hadn’t quite realized at the time, was the eyes of the cricketing world were on us. It was the first cricket to return, so people were tuning in around the world for a variety of reasons to see how we covered it, what cricket was like without a crowd. Then, we hit them with this bit of content.

“Mikey spoke incredibly powerfully off the back of it and then Ebony a little bit. So, it was 45 minutes of broadcasting on a cold, wet, rainy day in Southampton which was powerful and resonated with a lot of people.”

Rainford-Brent kept her phone turned off, saying later that she feared a social media backlash. She told the Press Association: “I was really nervous about us doing that piece. I turned off all my social media and I thought that most people would just say ‘We’re not interested, we’ve been sports-starved because of the pandemic, why do we want to listen to you guys talk about that when we want to watch the cricket?’”

Instead, she admitted the response had been ‘mind-blowing’ and showed her the world was ready to talk about the issue.

Says Henderson: “I think she was just hugely relieved at the reaction to what she had said. It was just the contrast, I think, between the elder statesman in Mikey, and then the younger, more raw emotion of Ebony. I still watch the film back from time to time, and it still resonates with me. Some of the stuff she had to put up with in an England dressing room was disgusting.”

When play finally got underway, the West Indies and England players took a knee, another significant moment. West Indies captain Jason Holder thanked Sky for their support and praised Holding and Rainford-Brent for their courage.

Holding and Rainford-Brent were later honored with the Freedom of the City of London award, while the broadcast received several industry awards including a BAFTA from the British Academy of Film and Television. It was named Best Sports Programme in the 2021 Broadcast Awards. Judges called it ‘the year’s outstanding moment of sports television’ and praised the ‘bold decision’ to make a significant departure from conventional sports coverage and produce an ‘enormously powerful programme’.

Henderson is proud Sky Sports Cricket used its voice, noting, “It was a huge team effort. I played a small part, but it was really Ebony and Mikey who were brave enough to talk. I’d like to think in some small way Sky Sports Cricket has used its voice and it’s resonated with some people and made people think a little bit.

“If it’s made the sport open its eyes a little bit, if it’s made the sport a bit more welcoming for more people of any minority to play this great game, then that’s fantastic. It’s definitely the day in my career I’m most proud of.

“But what I was always conscious of is I didn’t just want to think that was job done. We have to keep using our voice. We have to keep on telling stories but do it in a way that has impact. You’ve got to be mindful there is a balance between showing cricket and entertaining people and using your voice to educate. We’re conscious of that and we try and get that balance right as much as possible.”

What’s happened since

The film has continued to reverberate. Holding continues to speak passionately and eloquently on the issues arising from the Black Lives Matter movement. His award-winning book Why We Kneel, How We Rise, written in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, covered the causes and effects of racism in sports on players and communities. He has done further interviews for Sky and appeared on a range of podcasts and vodcasts to keep the conversation going. He still messages Henderson regularly with fury at injustice around the world.

Sky has since pledged £30 million behind three commitments to support anti-racism and improve diversity and inclusion, including improving black and minority ethnic representation at all levels within Sky, making a difference in communities impacted by racism, and using the power of Sky’s voice and platform to highlight racial injustice.

Cricket in England has undergone a somber period of reflection in the wake of that broadcast. In August and September 2020 interviews with Sky, ESPNcricinfo, and Wisden.com, former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq talked about the impact “deep-rooted” racism at the club had had on his mental health. Subsequent devastating testimony from Rafiq in front of British lawmakers and allegations from other players has seen the sport’s commitment to diversity under the microscope like never before. The English game’s governing body, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), has leveled formal charges against Yorkshire and a number of individuals for bringing the game into disrepute over allegations of racism.

In November 2020, the ECB announced its new Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Plan, including steps to establish the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket (ICEC) to make cricket more representative and tackle discrimination issues. Holding urged individuals to “share your story” as part of the ICEC’s wide-ranging inquiry with professional clubs in England amplifying the call for evidence through their social media channels. There remains criticism though that the game is not moving fast enough and last month Rafiq revealed he had been forced to leave the UK because of the abuse he has received.

ICEC Chair Cindy Butts is due to publish the Commission’s report containing recommendations to the ECB early this year. She thanked the thousands of people who contributed. Her team analyzed trends from the online survey, published in Winter 2021, capturing the lived experiences of 4,125 people in cricket. Commissioners have met with over 70 individuals and organizations and collected over 550 documents from cricketing bodies and experts.

“We are absolutely certain we would not have developed our knowledge and understanding of what can be done to improve equity across the game without the tremendous contribution from the public, current and former players and cricketing organisations,” she said. “As a Commission, we have been humbled by the level of courage demonstrated by so many who want to help the game to be equitable, diverse and inclusive. We are considering further critical evidence, analysing data and drafting conclusions.”

At Yorkshire, new chair Lord Patel has led the club through a period of significant change which has allowed it to meet conditions set by the ECB for the return of international and major matches at their ground, the club’s financial lifeblood.

Rainford-Brent, for her part, is taking action to improve opportunities for future generations of young people of African and Caribbean Heritage. Under her leadership, the ACE Programme (African Caribbean Engagement Programme) was launched by Surrey County Cricket Club in January 2020 to encourage more black teenagers in south London to play cricket.

ACE was later launched as an independent charity in October 2020 — the U.K. observes Black History Month in October — with Rainford-Brent as Chair. It received a significant investment of £540,000 from Sport England and has since gone nationwide with centers in other major English cities.

It seeks to address the decline in black British professional players by 75%, and less than 1% of the recreational game — a stark contrast to the 1970s and 1980s when the West Indies dominated the global game and cricket attracted a fervent following among the Caribbean community in England.

ACE’s Director of Programmes Chevy Green is excited by the progress already made in just two years. Through its community outreach, the program has already engaged 10,000 young people and has signed up 141 scholars, 45 of whom have joined county pathways with professional clubs.

Green says that following the Sky film many turned to the ACE Programme to see what lessons could be learned about improving access to sports. Sky Sports Cricket has also supported the charity prominently through its channels.

“With what we were trying to do, you could see it was a genuine effort to try and make a difference,” says Green. “But that profile and focus definitely helped us. It definitely created awareness.

“The feedback from the young people and their parents has been amazing. Just the environment we create in our sessions is amazing. It’s welcoming and comfortable. People can be themselves and not be judged. I think a lot of young people appreciate that. A big thing we used to hear was, when somebody went to trials at clubs, or to county pathways, they were often the only black or mixed-race child. Now they’re in an environment where there are loads of them with a similar ability, and they can all train and play together. That sense of community is great.”

ACE is keen to capitalize on black role models to raise cricket’s profile through their online engagement. Current England cricket stars Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan, and Sophia Dunkley serve as ambassadors. Black stars from other sports and the world of music also work with the charity. British boxer Isaac Chamberlain visited Surrey’s Kia Oval ground recently where he met young cricketers and was filmed in the indoor training school batting against a bowling machine for the first time. All this activity has made for engaging social media content.

Green characterized these efforts as “just trying to create a new audience. We’re going into areas where cricket isn’t the known sport. We talk about empowering the next generation because there have been generations missed all these years.”

While the charity may be judged on how many professionals it produces, Green is keen to stress it opens doors to other careers in sports. Some young people have since completed coaching courses; others work at the Oval in the ticketing office or as stewards.

“I grew up as someone who wanted to be a professional cricketer,” Green noted. “I had those dreams and aspirations, but I still work in cricket in development. I worked for Surrey for a long time. It helped me travel the world and do different things. So I know what it can do.

“Yes, you might be disappointed to not make it as a player, but there are so many different opportunities you can gain across the whole game. Ebony is an example on the media side. People can have opportunities they might not have been exposed to before.

“We often say to them, look, some of you are great on social media, do you understand every professional sports team in the world has someone that travels with the team and does everything you like to do on the team basis. So, you can get paid to still be around a professional sporting team and do social media. It’s just trying to open their eyes to different opportunities within the game.”


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*First Published: Jan 6, 2023, 4:03 pm CST