Partnership to equip ethnically diverse sports leaders of the future

The University of Leicester and Sporting Equals have signed a strategic partnership to promote ethnic diversity across sport and physical activity in the UK, and address the lack of diversity among sports leaders.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, and Sporting Equals Chief Executive Arun Kang OBE were joined by representatives from Leicester City Football Club (LCFC) to sign a new memorandum of understanding between the two organisations at the world-famous King Power Stadium.

Led by Associate Professor John Williams and Professor Surinder Sharma of the Unit for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement (DICE), the University of Leicester has collaborated with Sporting Equals for more than a decade to research and promote the role of individuals from ethnically diverse backgrounds in sport and sports leadership.

This includes a partnership in delivering the LeaderBoard programme, which is designed to equip ethnically diverse community professionals and former athletes with the skills they need to become the sports leaders and administrators of the future, who can influence diversity, equity and inclusion in sport.

The programme has, to date, seen one in three of its participants take up leadership roles in sport.

Members of the latest LeaderBoard Academy were offered a tour of the King Power Stadium on Wednesday, and the opportunity to find out more about the club’s policies and activities around diversity and inclusion.

Emile Heskey and Wes Morgan formed part of a panel discussion at the LeaderBoard Academy.

Leicester City’s Premier League-winning captain Wes Morgan, now part of the Premier League’s Advisory Board on ethnically diverse communities, was also on hand to meet the students, and to explain an athlete’s role in promoting diversity and inclusion.

Other guests included former England and Foxes striker Emile Heskey, now Head of Women’s Football Development at the club, alongside LCFC Women General Manager and Women in Football Board member Jade Morgan.

Speaking at the signing, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, said: “Widening participation is a key strategic objective for the University and, after such close collaboration between DICE and Sporting Equals for an extended period of time, it only seems right to take our partnership to the next level in signing this agreement.

“The crucial work of this collaboration matches the ambition of our wider commitment to driving diversity and inclusion in higher education, to reducing awarding and satisfaction gaps, and to ensure that education is accessible to all.

“Through our partnership with Sporting Equals we look forward to expanding opportunities for sportspeople from ethnic minority communities, and in supporting sports leaders of the future from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“I would also like to add my thanks to Leicester City Football Club, with whom we hold a valued partnership and share many common goals, in hosting the signing of this historic agreement.”

Arun Kang OBE, Chief Executive of Sporting Equals, added: “The instances of racism and a lack of understanding of ethnically diverse communities has been very public over the last year with the UEFA Euro 2020 racism and more recently the Azeem Rafiq and Yorkshire County Cricket Club episode. To prevent such instances taking place in the future we must diversify the boardrooms of sport with people with lived experiences and willing to challenge the status quo.

“The statistics on board diversity in sport remains unremarkable so to speak, recent statistics indicate only 7.9% of UK sports board members come from an ethnically diverse background (Perrett Laver, 2021). The translation of that statistic into actual people is a very minimal number which is why the importance and value of the LeaderBoard Academy continues to grow. It is our sincere hope that the sector will continue to work, learn and embrace the lived and learned experiences of members of ethnically diverse communities at a board level, the insight they provide is truly invaluable. 

“Our continued delivery of this programme and partnership with the University of Leicester is incredibly special, as we work in tandem to produce bespoke modules of learning that allow our graduates a unique education of leadership skills with a specific race equality focus. It also enables us to utilise the wider diversity and sports history of the city of Leicester with visits to grassroots clubs to inspire future leaders in sport.” 

Individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds make up around 14% of the UK population, yet make up only 5% of board members across the sporting sector.

This low number of decision-makers affects all of sport: only 7% of coaches in UK sport, and just 3% of the total sector workforce, come from ethnic minority communities.

Key contributors to the LeaderBoard programme have included Nigel Walker, National Director for the English Institute of Sport, Wasim Khan, CEO of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Mehmooda Duke, Chair of Leicestershire County Cricket Club, Olympic Gold medallists Denise Lewis OBE and Christine Ohuruogu MBE, and retired footballers Paul Elliott CBE and Brendon Batson OBE.

Previous members of the LeaderBoard Academy have gone on to successful careers in sport leadership with graduates moving on to become trustees for Notts County Football in the Community, and Access Sport. Others hold leadership positions in sport at Sport England, the British Cycling Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Group, the Football Association, London FA, British Fencing, and more.

John Williams, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Leicester, said: “We have worked for many years with Sporting Equals on research and the promotion of inclusion and diversity in sport. This new agreement is the logical outcome of that partnership, but it also offers exciting new possibilities for the future by drawing together teaching, research and practical outcomes for those on LeaderBoard.”

Speaking at the LeaderBoard event, Emile Heskey added: “There is no one pathway to leadership in sport. But it’s god to see the Club engaging with the right people through events such as this to better understand the barriers, and to understand what can be done.”

The formal partnership between the University and Sporting Equals will also extend to the flagship awards organised by Sporting Equals which recognises and celebrates excellence in sport in the UK.

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Professor Nishan Canagarajah and Arun Kang OBE sign the strategic partnership between the University of Leicester and Sporting Equals.