Fair play: the importance of inclusion and diversity for the new English football regulator

By Cameron Crooke, Ed Fox, Mara-Tafadzwa Makoni

Despite a raft of strategies and policies to tackle discrimination, prejudice still plays out in English football. But with the potential introduction of a new regulator comes an opportunity to create meaningful change.

It is a complicated journey to long-lasting change, but the good news is that football isn’t starting from scratch. This is a community that cares deeply about fair play. Efforts have been made to drive positive initiatives, with the FA launching a diversity code to tackle inequality and improve representation. They now participate in Pride London and actively support programmes that challenge discrimination, such as the Let’s Kick It Out campaign and Stonewall’s TeamPride consortium.

We’ve also seen the Premier League setting out plans to increase the representation of South Asian players. Over 50 clubs – with solid representation across the Premier League – have signed up to the Football Leadership Diversity Code to tackle inequality across leadership positions, team operations, and coaching roles. These clubs have also agreed to hire targets. For instance, in senior leadership roles, 30 percent of new hires will be women, and at least 15 percent will come from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Since July 2019, FIFA has updated its disciplinary code to include tougher sanctions on racism and discriminatory behaviour. And the association has set out a Good Practice Guide on Diversity and Anti-Discrimination to advise member associations with strategic and practical advice on integrating diversity into their organisations. It includes a five-pillar strategy to create a long-lasting impact: education, regulations, controls and sanctions, networking and engagement, and communications. FIFA have also used their power to lobby the UK Government on the Online Safety Bill to tackle online discriminatory abuse.

But discrimination is still present.

The last few years have seen persistent inclusion and diversity issues within football. Incidents include managers discriminating against players, racism in stadiums, and online racist abuse following the Euro 2020 final penalty shoot-out. These events are evidence of systemic prejudice that could be linked to how football itself is governed. So, there is a clear case that a new regulator could step in. But how?

There are three broad inclusion and diversity issues that should feed into the design of a new system for regulation: addressing systemic problems, learning from other regulators, and taking notes from different industries.

Addressing systemic problems

Football governing bodies have strategies and policies to tackle discrimination. But if parliament wants to tackle the systemic discrimination and inequality embedded in the system, stronger action is needed. This includes enhanced education, adapting employee recruitment and progression policies, and reconsidering the power to penalise or prosecute offenders.

But football and the law have a historically complex relationship. The FA and UK football bodies are subject to UK law - including the Equality Act, Fair Pay Legislation, and the Criminal Justice Act. However, there is a need for clarity around who is ultimately responsible for upholding equality and challenging discrimination in football. And yet accountability is key. For lasting change to take place, fans need to know what’s being done, who is responsible, and how footballing bodies operate. A new regulator will help hold organisations across football accountable to ensure that talk translates to action and that actions deliver impactful change.

And football fans’ mobilisation can be a force for good. The Fans for Diversity group is just one example of how fans can improve inclusion and diversity within the sport. However, they need support, guidance, and structure to achieve their full potential – a need that can quickly be met by the convening power of a central authority body.

Learning from other regulators

Our experience of working with and designing regulators has demonstrated that moving beyond tick-box exercises to achieve lasting impact can be challenging.

The key is to bring people on the journey with you. For example, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has considered the regulation of inclusion and diversity across organisations in a joint programme with the Bank of England and the Prudential Regulation Authority. A warmly-received consultation paper has recently been discussed with industry – the latest step on a journey to understand the importance of regulation in this space. As well as this, the FCA established a Memorandum of Understanding with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This was valuable as it allowed for the regulator to work closely with the UK Equalities regulator to build proposals, and ultimately help protect people in financial service markets, highlighting the benefit of working collaboratively.

The wider regulatory community offers leading examples of where inclusion and diversity is on the agenda. For example, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has conducted detailed data collection, analysis, and research into diversity across the profession. Now, they can leverage their position, using their handbook and code of conduct to drive an inclusion and diversity based agenda. The Pensions Regulator published its first diversity strategy in 2021. The strategy considers the organisation itself and how to promote inclusion and diversity in the wider sector. So, it’s clear that regulators hold the ability to provide a leading voice in this space. The key to doing so is working collaboratively with stakeholders, having a clear strategy, and ensuring that data and analytics is used to help support decisions.

Learning from industry

Football can learn from other industries too. In manufacturing and financial services industries, we’ve seen forward-thinking leaders make major strides in gender equality and ethnic diversity. And this is how football can hold itself to account and see positive change occur.

Both AIG and Ford have won recognition for their practices by working to build inclusive environments and ensuring leaders model the right behaviours. Driving positive change towards inclusion and diversity within football starts with setting targets informed by data. Then, organisations can move towards an action-driven approach where change is measured and transparently shared.

As we’ve seen with the impact of the Lioness’s victory, football has the remarkable capacity to bring together different and sometimes divided, communities through a shared interest. By its diverse talent alone, football has the potential to be inclusive and the power to inspire other sports and sectors to drive change.

What better goal for a new regulator to strive for? Not just to act as a watchdog, but to focus on a fair and respectful future for the game.

About the authors

Cameron Crooke PA operating model expert
Ed Fox PA culture and performance expert
Mara-Tafadzwa Makoni PA public services expert

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