Diversity roadmap - John Amaechi: ‘We’ve got to stop saying rainbow laces are the answer’

John Amaechi, former NBA player turned psychologist and consultant at Amaechi Performance Systems, discusses the need for sport to create a diverse leadership that reflects the communities it represents, and the lack of meaningful action so far.

Diversity roadmap - John Amaechi: ‘We’ve got to stop saying rainbow laces are the answer’

Sport is frequently lauded as a means of encouraging cooperation and advancing human rights, but for LGBT individuals and athletes, this doesn’t necessarily ring true. The sports industry is not insulated from wider societal mores, and remains a site of exclusionary practices that continue to block the progress of equality off the field.

The continued hosting of mega sporting events in countries with anti-LGBT laws brings the role of sport in campaigns to advance human rights to the fore. Sochi became a platform for LGBTI+ rights when Western activists called for a boycott based on several human rights concerns. Their resistance increased in direct response to the implementation of laws in Russia outlawing sexual minorities.

The 2018 World Cup currently underway in Russia is indicative of that; Fifa is staging soccer’s biggest event in a country with a poor human rights record, and where many LGBT Russians suffer state-sanctioned persecution and far-right violence. While homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, the 2013 ‘anti-gay law’ against ‘homosexual propaganda’ has been used to suppress peaceful LGBT protests, sack LGBT teachers and suppress welfare organisations that support LGBT teenagers. 

While Russia has assured Fifa and other equality pressure groups working with the governing body that peoples’ safety will be guaranteed during the World Cup, LGBT visitors have been advised to avoid displays of affection in public in case of attack.

John Amaechi, former NBA player turned psychologist and consultant at Amaechi Performance Systems, reflects on sport’s progress, in terms of diversity and inclusion, over the last decade, and discusses the strategies needed to enact meaningful and sustainable change throughout the industry.

How have you seen the climate for inclusion and diversity change?

I don’t think anybody could say that sport is substantially more diverse in terms of the people running it. I would say it’s quite purposefully not more inquisitive than it used to be. I think that there are a lot more people talking about diversity, but it is the same people who were always there in the first place. 

What do you see specifically as some of the barriers preventing women, LGBT and BAME individuals from accessing leadership positions in sport?

There is an abject and complete lack of will. You could boil it down to this matrix of will and skill that we use with our clients and it’s this idea that if you really look at sport, is it really a lack of insider knowledge or the ability to gain it, but is someone really going to try and tell me that the Premier League and the FA couldn’t buy all the expertise they could possibly need for a relatively menial figure compared to their television money? And so if it’s possible for them to have all the expertise and insight that would drive action, lead to real momentum, and they don’t bother getting it, is that an accident or is it on purpose? Because to me it’s either abject incompetence or it is total apathy.

John Amaechi of England in action during the European Championship semi-final against Belarus, 1999

How do you think a lack of diversity at leadership level affects the operating of a sport?

It’s a problem simply because the cognitive diversity that comes along with some of the visible differences that we’re talking about, those different experiences and ways of thinking and personalities and everything else, whilst they do, by definition, create more friction, they also help organisations be more prescient of opportunities and challenges, more resilient when times get tough to handle disruption and more able to see how the sport needs to develop in order to capture the audience of the future. And of course none of that is happening.

Where do you stand on quotas for leadership roles?

I think quotas can be quite challenging for minorities because it can mean that when you are a qualified minority, you get a position and other people in the organisation look at you like you have somehow come in the back door and not earned your position. The problem about not having quotas is that nothing changes. In almost every area where change is mandated, whether it’s AI, whether it’s agile working, somebody created a target and forced people to meet that target in order for something to change. It seems remarkable that targets are so vilified, and yet at the same time, the targets or guidelines we are given, are so pathetically low that it should be relatively achievable in seconds and yet we are given timelines that are years.

How do you believe organisations can go about fostering more inclusive attitudes in the communities they serve?

Unfortunately bottom-up tends to be energetic but chaotic. It tends to penetrate relatively little into the body majority. So it can mean that that excitement and energy means that a tiny amount of money given by a sporting organisation as a donation to a community or branding given by a sporting body to a community organiser, can make an organisation look like they’re doing an awful lot without actually being industrious.

So what do you think is effectual to effect real change?

What is required is for every organisation to identify five to ten per cent, ten to fifteen per cent of your organisation who can be evangelist to the tune that diversity and inclusion is a functional performance narrative that needs to be threaded into everything.

Obviously this requires them to change policy and procedure, to make sure it matches the views of an organisation, which are usually pretty effusive and progressive in terms of diversity and inclusion. So this isn’t saying anything they haven’t already said themselves— it’s simply holding them to account for what they’ve said. But that approach, if you can find those people throughout the organisation, then that way you can resonate through a fairly large organisation really quickly with simple messages that will be repeated like the sympathetic ringing of a bell in all parts of an organisation.

Do you see any success stories from the last couple of years?

Nothing you can stand on and really say this is the principled future approach. There have been lots of pockets of good, but they’ve been initiatives mostly, as opposed to wholesale changes of a sport. I don’t deny the fact that some of the sports have done some good with some of their initiatives. But the truth is that the sports themselves must change otherwise it’s pretty rich for a sport whose governance is entirely male and white to talk to the communities they serve about diversity.

We’ve got to stop with the platitudes and the placards and the posters portraying equality and suggesting everything is fine and saying rainbow laces is the answer

There are still very few ‘out’ athletes in professional sport. How do you think this can be changed?

The number of ‘out’ athletes is a symptom of the culture of sport. It isn’t a statement about the individuals. The individuals aren’t weak. The individuals understand their environment. Not all athletes are superstars. So if you’re not a superstar, do you think that you stand a better chance at the age of 16 of making it through a football academy if you’re ‘out’ or if you’re ‘in’. Now that’s the equation that young men and women ask themselves. And they know that they would sacrifice their wellbeing, in terms of being ‘out’ to stay in the one thing that will give them some sense of achievement, and they won’t risk that. Sport has to change and not just in all of its Premier League clubs, for example, but in all its academies.

How do you think that attitudes can be changed?

The leadership has to actually want this to happen. It currently doesn’t for the most part. It talks about it knowing, applauding, incremental, almost infinitesimal, and imperceptible, change or progress, rather. And they laud that progress instead of actually doing anything substantive.

And then, secondarily, we’ve got to stop with the platitudes and the placards and the posters portraying equality and suggesting everything is fine and saying rainbow laces is the answer, and do something substantive about the culture, policy and procedure, and hold people to account. Hold leaders to account in their language and their deeds. Then we can go about upskilling coaches so they understand that their role is to be an educator of young people in a sporting context.

Referee Mark Oliver wearing rainbow laces in support of tackling homophobia across sport

How do you think narratives told by brands and the media can work to further inclusion?

It would be great to try and break down the apartheid nature of some of the sports that exists, where certain types of people play certain types of sport, and to show that narrative on TV. Nike have done some decent stuff showing women with hijabs playing sport. But in the scheme of changing sport, that’s frippery. The substance happens within the sport themselves. They make a decision to be a different type of sporting entity and to back that up with policy and procedure and training and holding to account the people who would align themselves with that sport to a new set of standards.

How do you think sport can showcase the benefits of diversity?

Nobody gets to do that anymore. Nobody gets to pretend that they need more information on the business case for inclusion. There is so much data out there which all points to the fact that well-led, diverse teams will kick the arse of a homogenous team. It’s absolutely obfuscation for people to pretend that they need more evidence. I think just force people to be more truthful. Inclusion works in terms of performance enhancement, productivity enhancement, winning. So that’s the baseline we start from and if you deny that, then you’re just denying facts and I can’t help you with that.