Sports Discrimination – a ‘noble lie’?

June 24, 2015

discrimination, research

On Monday, a colleague (Dr Jo Beswick) and I presented at a conference organised by the Forum for Research into Equality and Diversity. The Conference was commemorating five years of the Equality Act 2010.

If anybody was interested in our presentation, I have uploaded our slides to Slideshare and they can be downloaded here:

(The accompanying paper that discusses this research will hopefully be available later this year once it has gone through the peer-review process).

Essentially, Jo and I would argue (as Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC – the keynote speaker also did) that Equality law is ‘a noble lie’. Particularly within sport, there seems to be a broad agreement amongst most National and International Federations that sport should remain free from discriminatory behaviour. The practical reality however is that in many instances, this concept represents more of an aspirational ideal and equality law is often little more than a toothless tiger.

While there are many sports governing bodies who are working incredibly hard to ensure that discrimination does not take place, indeed it is encouraging to see many of the positive campaigns announced this week in relation to women’s sport; it is also somewhat of a breath of fresh air to watch and discuss football without having to talk about accompanying corruption scandals (although the controversy over astroturfs did initially threaten to overshadow parts of the competition build-up); in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 contains specific exemptions for sport within s.195 in relation to discrimination on the basis of sex, gender reassignment, race and age.

The key problem is that our research demonstrates that there a number of areas where discrimination can still lawfully occur within sport and these have become almost codified by the Act that should have been designed to prevent that from happening! Indeed looking more closely, in places, the wording of the Act positively encourages governing bodies to use the provisions as a shield to stop those pesky campaigners from demanding an end to discrimination in sport. We would challenge sports governing bodies (and legislators) to justify why these exemptions from the Equality Act are still necessary and proportionate in 2015, particularly when the other s.4 protected characteristics (religion, disability etc) are not exempt. See for example:

  • the blanket form of words (‘disadvantage’) in s.195(3) that can be used to prevent mixed sport if the organisation so wishes
  • the omission or exclusion of intersex / ambiguous genders from the definition in s.195(2)
  • and the fact that sporting provisions can amount to a complete defence to age discrimination claims for competitors (although interestingly not officials) in s.195(7)

The research also opens a number of areas for which we do not yet have a solution – chief amongst these is whether equality is best served by ensuring either full integration, or valuing competitors differences in segregated competitions (or perhaps both)? We don’t claim to have any definitive answers to this latter point, but it would certainly be interesting to find out what other people think….

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About Kris

Associate Professor in Sports Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach

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