Embarrassment in Headingley: Cricket fans and residents alike shamed by racism row engulfing Yorkshire

On the gates of Yorkshire County Cricket Club’s stadium in Headingley, Leeds, there is a poster declaring the 18,000-capacity ground a hate-free zone: “challenge it, report it, stop it,” it says.

On Friday morning, on the streets surrounding this historic venue, sports fans and local residents tended to have one common question: why didn’t they stop it?

The fallout from the club’s astonishing mishandling of Azeem Rafiq’s racism claims continues to grow apace: chairman Roger Hutton has resigned, the ground has been suspended from hosting international matches, and sponsors are deserting in droves.

And in Headingley – a large suburb north of the city centre – there is now an equally growing sense of embarrassment at a club that, far from challenging abuse, has effectively dismissed it as “banter”.

Local businesses fear a devastating economic hit from not having Test matches played here, while cricket fans are worried it might put off young talent from taking up the sport. One amateur player – a Yorkshire fan all his life – spoke of feeling a sense of grief about what has happened.

“I’ve supported Yorkshire since I was a kid, I go and watch them four or five times a season,” says Rehaan Butt, an opening batter with the amateur Bolton Villas CC. “And now – how can I support a club where I know that was allowed to happen? It’s hard. It feels like losing someone.”

Rehaan Butt: ‘What I can’t ignore is my county club doing nothing about it’

(The Independent)

The 33-year-old had trials himself there when he was a teenager (“and wasn’t good enough”) but always dreamed his children might play for the county. “Well, that dream’s done,” he says. “That’s over for me now.”

He has himself suffered racism while playing sport. “You learn to ignore it,” he says. “But what I can’t ignore is my county club doing nothing about it.”

More widely, some reckon that because Yorkshire CCC is famed across the cricketing world, it will damage the whole county’s international reputation.

“It’s a shocker,” says Mick Cuffe, a steel fixer enjoying a drink in the Headingly Taps pub. “Every cricket fan knows Yorkshire from Australia to West Indies – and now they know it’s run by people who think calling someone a P*** is a bit of a laugh. Tell me, who’s going to want and come and play here now? Why would they?”

He himself has some experience of racism: his first wife was half-Jamaican. “This was the Eighties,” the grandfather-of-eight says. “We couldn’t go anywhere without hearing slurs. And people said that was banter. Let me tell you, when you’re the one on the receiving end, it’s not bloody banter. That sort of nonsense should have been left in the Eighties.”

What should Yorkshire CCC have done when an independent inquiry found there had been racism earlier this week? “Taken it seriously,” the 63-year-old says instantly. “Someone should been [dismissed] immediately.”

Mick Cuffe: ‘When you’re the one on the receiving end, it’s not bloody banter’

((Photo: Independent))

This is a point that appears to have particularly rankled.

If the abuse was bad enough in the first place, the fact that it was explicitly tolerated by those running the club – the fact that no one fell on their sword when the accusations were proven – seems especially egregious to many here.

“If you have any high profile institution – be that a school or a bank or in this case a sports club – they have to behave with moral rectitude,” says Jason Cunningham, owner of the Ugly Mugs cafe adjacent to the stadium. “They haven’t done that.

“Their response to what happened has been completely out of touch with the behaviour we should be able to expect from them. That’s the problem. There has been a refusal to acknowledge that something went wrong and then take responsibility for it. No one held their hands up.”

He himself has an especially keen interest in this: Ugly Mugs is not exactly reliant on the crowds brought by England matches here every summer but they do bring a huge amount of business to the place.

During August this year, when there was a Test match on, the 52-year-old says the place did the same amount of business as it had done in the previous eight months combined. “Without that next summer…” – a sigh – “it’s not ideal, is it? A lot of innocent people will be hurt by the ban.”

Jason Cunningham: ‘No one held their hands up’

(Mick Cuffe)

Among the county’s cricketing community there is also anger.

Danny Bell, a member of the Airedale and Wharfedale Senior Cricket League management committee, looked on mortified at this week’s events.

“We had a team this year win the league [Saltaire CC] that was, one to 11, all lads of Asian heritage, and it was so good to see because this is a community in Yorkshire that absolutely loves its cricket; is integral to the amateur game,” the 36-year-old says. “And then this happens and you’re wondering, are you going to get young kids deciding they don’t want to be part of it because they might face prejudice?”

He himself doesn’t think that will happen – essentially because the passion felt for the game will overcome the difficulties. “But it’s not ideal that we even have to be talking about it, is it?” he says.

Yet not everyone, it should be said, necessarily feels this way.

One local cricketing official The Independent spoke to but who did not want to give his name suggested the issue had been “blown up” out of proportion. Another person, on the streets of Headingley, said managers at the club had handled the situation reasonably. “What’s the world coming to?” he asks. He does not give his name. That may speak volumes.

For now, either way, the saga rumbles on – and Headingly, by and large continues to watch aghast.

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