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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – In conversation with Sanjay Bhandari, Chair of Kick It Out

Posted on 11 December 2020

In November, Sanjay Bhandari, Chair of Kick It Out, the organisation which campaigns against discrimination in football spoke with Partner, Derval Walsh about the discrimination that takes place in football.

Sanjay Bhandari is only the second chair of Kick It Out and replaces the founder, Lord Herman Ouseley, who held the role for 25 years. A former lawyer and member of the Premier League’s independent panel on equality, Sanjay believes football has the ability to lead on racism in society.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.   

Derval Walsh, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Hello everybody.  Today we are going to hear the latest in the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions and we are very privileged to have with us Sanjay Bhandari.  Sanjay is well known to me, in fact we know each other going back 22 years.  Sanjay is the Chair of Kick It Out which is the inclusion and diversity charity for football in this country which is funded by the FA and the purpose of today is just to speak to Sanjay about his experiences, love of football, his role in Kick It Out, how he sees the future of the game and how he can see football being able to tackle the challenges around diversity and inclusion and making it what it should be, which is a game for everybody.  Well, I’m interested in the extent to which football for you is a solitary interest or something that appeals to you because it enables you to engage and interact with other people.  I’d be very interested to hear your views on that, just to kick off. 

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair

Kick It Out

Thanks for inviting me, it’s a pleasure to be able to speak to people today and to connect, yeah, I mean it had always been something I’d been interested in as a kid, I just played, played with my family, played school football, stuff like that but actually more as I’ve been going to matches and I’ve been going to matches for 30-40 years and home and away to follow United for over 30 years, it is much more of a social thing. 

Derval Walsh, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

And can you tell us then a little bit about your journey to the Chair of Kick It Out because it’s a very high profile charity, as I’ve said.

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair

Kick It Out

Yeah, like most things in life, I think from my experience, a lot of serendipity so, you know that my career was, I was sort of 29-30 years in professional services, bit of a game of two halves, first half as a litigation lawyer which is where we met, second half I kind of helped to write the English Court laws on electronic discovery, built eDiscovery businesses, built some of the first eDiscovery businesses in the UK, building technology businesses and then I was a partner at EY for the last dozen years of my career.  I’d always done side hustles, all through my career, you know, so you will remember when we were at Herbie’s and when I went to Baker’s as well, I did a lot of pro bono work for prisoners on Death Row, met Keir Starmer, we did some projects with Keir when he was our Leading Counsel, did some stand-up comedy on the side for a couple of years but then when I came to EY actually one of the side hustles became diversity and inclusion and I was asked to be a sponsor for the South Asian Network and then eventually I became our Race Strategy Lead for EY nationally so we have seventeen and a half thousand people.  To give you a context, I was non-white partner number 11 out of about 500.  By the time I left, we had hit our target of 10% of our partnership being Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic, with a target of 20% and that was part of a particular strategy.  And really it was off the back of that that I started getting these other roles so, I worked with the Government on the Parker Review on ethnicity on UK boards so we made some recommendations and that committee is still going on.  And then off the back of that, I was working with the Premier Leagues for four years as an Equality Standard Panellist so, we would assess every single Premier League club for its compliance with three benchmark levels of an equality standard looking at its systems and processes to drive inclusion in the game but also to tackle discrimination.  So, I had come across Kick It Out during that because Kick It Out had provided a lot of the support for the clubs and the initial standard was actually the Kick It Out standard, they drafted the first equality standard in English football.  And then about eighteen months ago, the previous Chair had stepped down and someone spoke to me and said would you think about applying for this role as the Chair of Kick It Out and, you know, love of football, I actually want to get into that more longer term for the last leg of my career and it seemed like a really good segue way in to build some of those relationships and yet it’s a, I suppose quite a well-known organisation because it’s been around for so long but we’re funded, not just by the FA actually, we are funded by the FA, the Premier League, the Professional Footballers’ Association and the English Football League, although constitutionally the one of the first things I’ve done in the first year there is to remove the veto rights that they have and that is deliberately so that we can expand our sources of funding and expand the perceptions of independence as well as actually being more independent and so, we are moving away from being… we still want to be footballers inclusion charity but we don’t want that direct connection so that we’re perceived as being kind of in the pocket of the authorities, we need a degree of independence from them.

Derval Walsh, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

People may have heard the news recently, in particular the comments that the former, and I use the former very deliberately, Chair of the FA, Greg Clarke, used at a DCMS meeting.  From your perspective, what did you take from his comments?  I mean specifically in relation to what they might reflect as to attitudes within the game, not just his attitudes but attitudes within the FA itself.  Did they give you real cause for concern or did you think this was just a bit of a lone wolf and an aberration?  How did you see all of that? 

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair

Kick It Out

So I have the advantage that I’ve been working with the FA, the Premier League and others for the last, you know, twelve months plus and so, I know the people that I’m working with and I know how hard we’ve been working on a number of initiatives so, for example, at the FA, we produced with the FA and a whole bunch of other people, we had a steering committee that we’d been working for three months on the Football Leadership Diversity Code which we launched three weeks ago, okay, and that is potentially transformative of the English game because for the first time it sets targets for recruitment, for Black, Asian and Mixed-Heritage people and on gender in coaching and in leadership positions.  And we had 40 clubs sign up to this, so 40 out of the 92 professional clubs.  I would have been delighted on the first day to have 10 or 15 clubs, we had 40, it’s incredible to have nearly half of all professional clubs signed up on day one to doing something.  So, I know how much effort went into that and I know how much the FA… how important this agenda item is to the FA.  It’s a tentpole of their strategy because inclusion and belonging is all also part of the narrative that hopefully will help us ultimately with something like a World Cup bid.  Now, when you know all of that background and then you hear those comments from the Chair, I know that he doesn’t represent that organisation, I know he doesn’t represent the views of the organisation and the direction of travel of the organisation.  I think what you… I suppose it’s fair to ask is does he represent a certain type of person within the FA and there are still really big governance challenges within English football, one of which is the makeup of the Board, although that’s better than it has been and I am sure they will get through to the right point where they’ll get the… some representation from particularly Black players on the Board but more importantly, the Council which goes back through to the County FA system and that really is the archetypal old white men in blazers and they still exercise some veto rights in the FA and the big challenge with Greg’s comments is, as soon as you hear them, that’s exactly the mental image that it throws up is, it’s the old white men in blazers again and these people are out of touch.  Now, I don’t think the modern FA is out of touch but I do think those comments were completely inappropriate. 

Derval Walsh, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

If you were asked for your view as to how the FA should go about finding the next full-time successor to Greg Clarke, what would you say to the powers that be as to how to go about that process and what they should be looking for in a successor?

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair

Kick It Out

My challenge and gripe with recruitment in football is that more than most industries it is centred around closed networks and around cronyism and to me, the answer to cronyism is not a different form of cronyism for a different cohort of people.  The answer is open and transparent recruitment processes that enable you to fish in different ponds for looking for different people with the right qualifications so, this should be, you start with the requirements of the job, you then, you know I’m sure then what they will do is go through some recruitment consultants but actually while you’re doing that, think about, you know, which recruitment consultants who we are using, you know, have they truly got the network, what do they look like, can you use more than one recruitment consultant so that you are deliberating fishing in multiple ponds and that you get underrepresented or minority community candidates as part of the search, and then you choose the right person for the role and obviously then you can use the sort of equal merits provisions and if you’ve got candidates of equal merits then sure, then you can take into account whether they may be representing a minority or underrepresented community and that’s a legitimate thing to do.  I think at the moment part of the problem is a lot of the debate is centred on why should we have a black former player or should we have a woman or should we…?  It’s the wrong question.  The right question is, what are the skills that are required for the job and actually, what does that role entail over the next four to five years because you’re making a strategic hire for the, you know, one of the biggest cultural assets of this country.

Derval Walsh, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Because the point has been made that football is diverse in the sense that appeals to everybody, it is the global game.  The issue is not with the diversity of football, the issue is with the lack of inclusion and that some people are not kind of treated fairly and you get people who’ve been very vocal about this Raheem Sterling for example who has gone out on a limb and he’s been very vocal about this.  To what, you know, what do you think we could do to make people feel more included? 

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair

Kick It Out

The first thing was acknowledging challenges that are there.  I think the second thing is understanding those challenges and then the third thing is remedying them.  Let’s start with the three biggest systemic biases in English football, right, and I didn’t call it structural racism or structural anything, I didn’t… I wasn’t going to use pejorative language, look these are systemic biases and my evidence for those systemic biases is just numbers.  So, let’s look at the data, so when we look at the data, what are the three biggest ones?  They are the boardrooms that are predominantly white and male.  It is the lack of Black coaches, right?  So it’s not the lack of BAME coaches, it’s the lack of Black coaches and the reason why it’s the lack of Black coaches is, coaches tend to come from the playing side of the game, that is the more traditional pathway, you still get some people who go into coaching not from having had a stellar playing career but most of them come from the playing arena.  25 to 30% of players are Black.  It is on the best evidence 4% of managers.  It’s an egregious statistical anomaly that the last one in the men’s game is if you think the pitch is a meritocracy, you should think again because the pitch like any other recruitment decision in life, there are often people of similar merits that could make it provided they are given the coaching and the training and someone believes in them.  There’s this myth that we fall into that it’s always the best people that make it.  You know, I talk to quite a few professional players and say, it’s just nonsense really, they’re all, normally though one or two players in any cohort who are your Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Ronaldo, I mean they’re going to make it, right?  The vast majority fall into, actually they could do with a headwind, a bit of coaching, a bit of training, dedication, all that kind of stuff, that’s where the majority of players are and that’s where you’re making choices.  That’s where the statistical anomaly around Asian players is.  Asians are, in the UK, the single largest ethnic minority.  Put it this way, there are twice as many people of Asian heritage than there are of Black heritage in the UK.  Black people have done incredibly well in professional football and we want the same for Asian people but there are one hundred times more Black professional players than there are Asian professional players.  That tells you we’ve made no progress in forty years.  So, you have to start by understanding those challenges and then acknowledging and then creating the remedies.  I think we’ve got more work to do on the Asian inclusion side and there’s some other conversations we are having on that.  On the other two big systemic biases, that’s the reason why we set up the Football Leadership Diversity Code because left to your own devices, what many businesses do and what football has been great at doing is, talking a good game and saying I really want to do this but not delivering on it and like any business or any sports organisation, you only, you only achieve things if you set yourself targets and so this was about, we’re going to set targets, then, and monitor them and evaluate them over the course of the next four or five years to see, are you coming good on your promises because unless you target it, nothing will change. 

Derval Walsh, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Speaking for myself, I’ve found that really, really interesting and really insightful and actually, the work that you are doing for Kick It Out and your passion for the game and the fact that, you know, you want it to be a game for everyone, I love the ad on TV which talks about the fact that one of the things that people love about football is when they are on the pitch, we’re all the same and I think your work to support that and drive that is phenomenal.  I want to thank you for making the time and providing your insight, it’s been absolutely wonderful.  Thank you, Sanjay.

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair

Kick It Out

No problem.  Thank you for inviting me, Derval and, yeah, good luck to everyone. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit Mishcon.com.

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