Over the past few years university sport has garnered a negative reputation in the national media. Horror stories of initiations and discrimination have left students reluctant to participate, particularly LGBT+ students.
To combat this problem, Take A Stand, UEA’s campaign against discrimination in sport, was launched in September 2016 by Joe Zilch. With the unveiling of the BUCS Take A Stand charter at UEA last week, signed by all 62 sports presidents, Concrete caught up with the SU Activities and Opportunities Officer to find out how he’s been promoting the campaign in the run-up to Derby Day.
Take A Stand is a national BUCS campaign, launched three years ago by the association. Similarly to Pride Sport and Kick It Out, which were combatting homophobia and racism in football respectively, Take A Stand is an umbrella campaign which brings together tackling LGBTphobia, racism, sexism, initiations, disability access, crowd behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse and faith and cultural appropriations: all under one catchphrass.
Zilch tells me that he was advised to pick three or four key themes to focus on throughout the year, and that he chose to put UEA’s efforts predominantly into dealing with LGBT-phobia, sexism, racism and crowd behaviour. LGBT history month saw the launch of rainbow laces. Zilch said: “These are a known symbol of Pride sport, but I launched it as a symbol of the campaign as a whole. It was a really easy way for sportspeople to show their support.” Sexism was the focus for the #ThisGirlCan campaign, while improving the “huge negative perceptions” surrounding university sports teams was Zilch’s focus for Derby day.
Take A Stand also saw changes being made to the equality and diversity (E&D) training given to sports clubs’ committees. The shift to peer-to-peer learning came about because E&D was perceived as “patronising and boring” by the members, and because Zilch “wanted to create a platform for them to call out poor behaviours themselves.” He also informs me that he’s “unaware of any initiations taking place” this year, and that the union still employ a “blanket ban” on any such behaviours.
The idea for the campaign began when Zilch was “on the sports executive last year and, noticed that there were some differences of opinion between the old union officers and the current sporting population.” He adds that “when I first came into the [SU] role, whenever I mentioned sport, people would roll their eyes.”
He tells me students often perceive sport as associated with lad culture, being in high school, PE classes and bullying, and that these “negative perceptions” were why he had “two main reasons” for bringing Take A Stand to UEA. “I wanted to show sports clubs that they could be inclusive and that they could adopt anti-discrimination and inclusive ideals, and I wanted to show that as much as those behaviours had been committed in the past, we’re going to draw a line and challenge those.”
Zilch says that while he personally “had never experienced any” of those negative behaviours, and that: “within my sport – swimming – I’ve never faced any homophobia but I knew that wasn’t the case with everyone else… Sometimes things do go wrong, but Take A Stand is definitely more of a carrot than a stick.” But surely if homophobia wasn’t still a problem, we wouldn’t need a campaign against it? “It obviously is still out there. I think from my personal opinion; I would probably say it’s a lot more of a problem outside of universities. Mainly because universities are environments which are a lot more liberal than the outside world, I think there’s a lot less of that (liberalism) in the local clubs.”
He adds: “there is a need for these campaigns, and I feel very strongly about [homophobia in sport]. I won’t be standing for it.”
Since the launch of the campaign at this year’s Freshers’ Fair, Zilch says he has spoken to every sports club and secured the support of all 62 presidents, describing their enthusiasm and creativity as “humbling,” and insisting that participation in the campaign was on a voluntary basis.
“They all saw the value and wanted to be a part of it. They wanted that opportunity to show how welcoming they can be and it was amazing.”
There was “no resistance to it whatsoever. There wasn’t one president, one sports club, that I got any kind of negative response from.” The success of the campaign at UEA has also been noticed by BUCS, who are featuring UEA as a case study on the Take A Stand website.
Take A Stand has “no disciplinary weight behind it” and it will be up to Joe’s successor to decide whether they want to continue the campaign going forward.
But as an example of implementing change within university sport: in less than one year, it’s hard to see how it could have been more effective.