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We must rebuild the sport and physical activity sector better than before

The Blair Project director Dr Marilyn Comrie on why things must be different following the coronavirus crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement.

06th October 2020

by Dr Marilyn Comrie
Director at The Blair Project

2020 has been difficult for many people but, as we approach the last few months of the year, I feel we’re at a crossroads and have the chance to bring real change.

The coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement have brought some of the stark inequalities that exist within our society to the surface.

Marcus Rashford takes the knee to mark the Black Lives Matter movement during Manchester United's game with West Ham

It’s essential that, as we rebuild our economy and our communities in the weeks and months ahead, we create something better than what existed before and don’t simply return to the status quo that failed so many people.

We should not kid ourselves that the sport and physical activity sector is immune from the need to reform – we’ve long known that people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people do not enjoy the benefits being active gives the majority of the population.

Yet, while we’ve identified that a problem exists, we’ve not been successful enough at making the real changes required to solve it.  My hope is that the promise of change will this time be backed up by real action.

The signs are positive, but we can’t assume that we can fix things by just throwing money at the problem or by simply creating a new fund. There is systemic and structural racism that prevents help getting to the people that need it the most. Until we break this down, we will not succeed in making an equal society, however good our intentions.

In this blog I want to outline a few of the reasons for this and highlight some of the ways practical changes could make a big difference.

Elite performance of Black sports stars doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem

When you watch Lewis Hamilton win races, Serena Williams claim tennis titles or Marcus Rashford score goals for Manchester United, it’s easy to think racism in sport no longer exists.

Yet, while Black athletes have demonstrated beyond doubt that they can compete with their White counterparts, it’s a long way from being a level playing field.

The success at the top is just the tip – the visible part – of the iceberg. You look below the waterline and it is a different picture.

Take Premier League football as an example. There are many Black players, but how many coaches or managers are there? How many owners or directors? How many Black people work in the finance teams or marketing departments?

It’s the same with community sport and, until progressive people appreciate the scale of the problem, it’s not something we’ll be able to solve.

You can’t solve inequalities in sport and physical activity until you solve the economic inequalities that underpin them

It’s so important to understand the impact poverty has on participation in sport and physical activity.

Being active costs money and there is no point preaching about the value of sport to people who can’t afford to do it.

In Manchester, we see some children missing out on things because their families can’t afford to pay a £2 fee. A lot of people we work with simply couldn’t afford a £15-per-month gym membership.

We hold events such as the Manchester International Festival in the centre of the city, but if you can’t afford to get the bus there or back you’re not going to attend, whatever the programme is like or how appealing the offer is.

Providing suitable opportunities is in all our best interests as there will be less demands on the health service and less crime because people can secure better paid jobs.

There’s an assumption people turn to crime and get involved with drugs and addiction because they are morally bankrupt, but the reality is life for some people is very tough.

It’s a travesty that in one of the richest countries in the world, we've the working poor relying on foodbanks, and until policy makers and activity providers genuinely understand the reality of the situation for so many people, they won’t be able to help them.

The system prevents Black-led organisations from accessing the money that’s available

The evidence is clear that Black-led organisations really struggle to get funding.

It’s generally unintentional, but the criteria is often designed in a way that makes it impossible for small, local organisations that are doing vital work on the ground to get the money they need.

Often funders will say that you can only apply for the funding equivalent to 10% of your annual turnover. They say it’s because they need to safeguard the funding and they don’t want to give any organisation more money than they know how to handle, but the impact of that is you’re effectively saying to Black social enterprises and organisations working in sport ‘you need to remain small’.

It means that large charities and social enterprises who turn over £3 million a year can access huge amounts of cash by filling in a form and by saying they work with BAME youth.

An organisation that really works in those communities but has small turnover is left fighting for scraps. They can never get the funding that allows them to put the infrastructure in place to transform lives in the way they could.

That’s why it’s important you shouldn’t judge an organisation by their ability to tick boxes or fill in forms.

The best people to work with Black people are those who understand their situation best, and that’s often Black-led organisations.

We must help these organisations build their capacity so they can grow and develop their work.

It’s really important businesses and funders go into communities and partner organisations as opposed to waiting to be approached

It’s vital we understand you can use sport to provide a progression route for people to lift themselves up and give themselves the sort of life opportunities many take for granted.

Being involved in sport can give people better life chances and programmes such as The Blair Project – which gives young people from BAME backgrounds, who might not traditionally engage with education, a chance to learn about science and technology in a fun way and progress into apprenticeships – are vitally important.

Big organisations and large companies have a social responsibility to reach out to these groups and help where they can make a difference. Historically, it’s been too difficult for Black-led organisations to access sponsorship or form partnerships but, thankfully, this is starting to change.

It’s also in the interests of these larger organisations. They want the best people to work for them and need access to the best talent. This has often been a byword for White, middle class and male but, if we widen our horizons, we'll see that people from all backgrounds can make a difference.

While we’ve become better at talking about diversity in regard to women and LGBT people, we’ve lagged behind in our ability to talk about race.

Today, we have an opportunity to make real, long-lasting change that’ll improve the lives of groups of people that've been sidelined for too long.

It isn't and won't be easy. You only have to look on Twitter to see racists are becoming more prominent. They're saying things in public they wouldn’t have dreamed of a few years go. Anyone who fights for equality gets abuse.

But it shows that we are winning as we’re finally seeing allyship and progressive people coming together. I think it’s so exciting. 

Dr Marilyn Comrie is a director of The Blair Project, which gives young people a route into apprenticeships through sport. She is also on the board of Greater Sport, an organisation that aims to increase physical activity and sport engagement in the Manchester area.

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