Sport should be everyone’s game: inclusivity in higher education sports clubs

Earlier this term, I met with a group of student leaders behind some sports clubs to discuss all things sports inclusivity.

The aim of the meeting was to see what the baseline understanding was; where clubs were weaker across the board; and see if there was a genuine appetite to improve. We started by asking clubs to rate themselves on how well they believe they are performing in areas like LGBTQ+, cost and involvement, race and nationality, gender and more.

Towards the end of the meeting, I asked whether clubs had plans in place to improve their work in the categories they rated lower against. The feeling in the room was unanimous: we want to, but we don’t know how.

This highlighted the paradox we find ourselves in: the behaviour of clubs often goes against the culture of inclusivity that their SU and University wants to instil on its members, but we’re not always as proactive in ensuring our student groups feel guided by people with the relevant experience and expertise in these areas to enable effective change to occur.

The reason for doing work on sports inclusivity may be obvious to those looking at the bigger picture about the need to help students find communities, feel they belong at university, and face no barriers to being actively involved in their university life. But this is probably not on top of the agenda for our sports clubs.

When people run to be on an executive of a sports club, they’re elected into what is a fairly narrow remit: a socials officer, or the club’s treasurer, for example, where you want to be elected to this role so you can run events you enjoy, create a budget that works and to add something to your CV.

So the challenge to shift this focus, and train our officers to work collaboratively to look at their socials, see how expensive they are over a term and what measures they can bring in to reduce these costs to reduce that barrier to being fully involved in the club.

Shocker

With every headline that hits the press, the culture of some of the clubs around the country is being revealed to be problematic. What we’re seeing on a national level is an issue of culture within clubs; whether it is initiations or socials that happen during the year, inclusivity is not high on their agenda, and their socials, traditions and behaviours are showing this.

Mix in some anonymity with social media, group chats, or a white t-shirt social and we’re seeing these actions exacerbated – and the worst is coming to the surface.

The culture of clubs is a complex issue, we can all see that it’s problematic in isolation, but it also feeds into the barriers that some students face when joining clubs. An unwelcoming culture has been cited as an issues for LGBTQ+ students and Women+ students, and the alcohol-dominant culture being a barrier for some faith students.

Sitting alongside the culture of our clubs, is the intersecting issue of cost. It is an issue of perception and reality; when a student believes that joining a club will be too expensive for their budget they are put off from participating, but it is also the case that for some students, some clubs will be out of their budget which also presents a barrier. We need to be doing more to be transparent about costs, and taking a holistic approach to reducing costs where possible.

What should we be doing?

As SUs we need to be increasing guidance available to clubs – not just rolling out the basic training into Equality, Diversity and Inclusion but also doing the work to translate this into practical steps clubs can take to make a meaningful difference.

We also need to take a step back at times, and allow this development to happen. Our job is to ensure members of these clubs recognise the benefits of being involved in sport, understand the barriers to participating that some students face, and then they must be determined to take the positive steps required.

If we want any improvements to be sustainable, it must come authentically from the clubs who see the benefits of making these changes on their club and who will champion this through handovers to ensure their improvements live on past their term on the executive.

In an uncertain economic position, universities are becoming stricter with spending, but as officers we are still hearing through committees that inclusivity must be a priority going forward, though the finances are often not there to match the rhetoric.

We can make strides forward as long as there is sufficient funding to do so. We should be making participation in recreational sport a priority to get students who are inactive to feel the benefits of activity for the wellbeing; reviewing the funding models in place to see whether they are only benefiting those who perform well in BUCS, or if they support clubs who are more inclusive, and so much more.

We should be collaborative in our approach to tackle the issues mentioned so far, and in seeing how resources should be effectively deployed to sports across all levels of competition.

What we’re doing at Lancaster

Myself and our VP Activities have created an intersectional sports inclusivity initiative called All In, with the aim to enhance the sense of community, normalise inclusive practices, and reduce barriers to participation for all students. We have set criteria against some areas of inclusivity we feel need improvement across our sports clubs, with clubs having flexibility and ownership about how they complete the criteria for what works for them.

These were influenced by issues raised in our initial focus groups, and have been discussed with some of our part-time liberation officers. We have started with five categories:

  • The Fundamentals: covering everything from club behaviour and traditions reviews, to ensuring effective information sharing with new members.
  • LGBTQ+: having a Trans inclusion statement which is proactive and is open and honest about how Trans students can get involved in their club against their NGBs rules, and working with external charities and organisations to collaborate on campaigns.
  • Race and Nationality: Working on strategies around international recruitment and integration, and running events during Black History Month.
  • Mental Health: ensuring signposting is accurate and covers the range of support available at Lancaster, to running events which encourage the general student population to participate in physical activity.
  • Widening Participation: split into involvement and financial; covering the creation of Value for Money report to be clear to prospective members about what they will receive for their money, to showing that they have a pathway from recreational activity to competitive sport in their club.

Clubs will have to score points in each of the categories to receive an “All In” award to ensure that they are considering many aspects of the way their club is run and how it can be more inclusive and welcoming for all students.

In the years to come, the aim is to add to the categories we use to measure our clubs’ progress against our expectations; we want to spend more time researching the broad topic of disabilities in sport, develop our understanding of how clubs can be more accommodative of students of faith, and tackle the barriers that Women+ students face in getting involved in sports at University. This framework will also be expanded out and encompass our societies, colleges and other student groups.

We are hoping that by providing a framework that clubs can measure their work against and then putting the onus on them to lead their clubs to be more inclusive, that the sporting landscape at Lancaster will permanently change for the better. We hope that in years to come, we will see a noticeable shift in the culture of our clubs; each boasting a more diverse set of members; with access to sports being unlocked to all students.

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