Dr Gavin Ward | A Level Playing Field? Understanding Racism and Racial Inequality in British University Sport
About this episode
Racial inequalities exist in most social institutions. This challenges the common narrative that we live in a ‘post-racial’ era. The way in which racism plays out in both higher education and sport has long interested scholars. Higher education is increasingly under pressure to address issues of equity and inclusion. In sport, experiences of racial inequality and abuse are reported by athletes, coaches and spectators. University sport sits at the intersection of both higher education and sport, providing a useful context for academics to explore how racism is experienced within institutions. Read More
Dr Gavin Ward at the University of Wolverhampton and academics at four other universities conducted a twelve-month research project to explore racialised experiences of staff and students in British university sport. This research was commissioned by British Universities and College Sport, the national administrator and promotor of university-level sport.
Part of the research focused on 38 students across five universities, to understand the experiences of non-White student athletes. The research found some very positive narratives in the data, particularly when a positive relationship existed between the students’ athletic identity and the university sport system in which they participated.
However, it was also clear that racialisation and racism are also present in university sport and students are often engaged in an ongoing negotiation of Whiteness. University sport was perceived by the students as a White space, and many recalled experiences of fetishization, hostility, and being ‘othered’ as non-White.
Two themes of negotiating Whiteness were experienced by the student athletes.
The first theme, Play by the Rules, captures how non-White students had to negotiate an additional set of rules to the sport in which they participated. This involved aligning their behaviour to White expectations so as not to be racially stereotyped, such as being labelled an ‘angry Black man’. These rules also governed how they responded to racial abuse, which often silenced their resistance and led the abuse going unchallenged.
The second theme, Keep You Guessing, illustrates how racial discrimination within British university sports is subtle, momentary, and difficult to prove beyond doubt that it occurred. Non-White students were often left to guess who the perpetrator was or whether behaviour was intended as racist. This made the discrimination harder to identify, evidence and report. Proof beyond doubt was the remit of complaint systems. As a result, racial abuse was left unchallenged and became a normalised experience for the students.
This research demonstrates how racism is operationalised in a White-centric system and how the burdens of racialisation and racism create emotional labour for non-White students. Organisations that oversee university sports have a responsibility to commit to robust mechanisms for managing racialisation and racism in the moment it happens, so that it is not left unchallenged.
The research recommendations also argue that the role of Whiteness should be interrogated. White athletes should be brought into the process of tackling prejudice, and all stakeholders should consider how current practices and beliefs allow racial prejudice to continue to go unchallenged.
Original Article Reference
Summary of the paper: ‘Playing by White rules of racial equality: Student athlete experiences of racism in British university sport’, doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2023.2252459
This paper was part of a project commissioned by British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS)
For further information, you can connect with Dr Gavin Ward at email@example.com
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