Racism, elitism and intimidation: students claim ‘abysmal’ culture in Team Durham club

By Elizabeth McBride, and

Students have described a culture of bullying, bigotry and elitism within a Team Durham club. Players and student exec members claim that an institutional lack of accountability and transparency within both the club and the wider Team Durham structure has facilitated harmful practices.

Current and former members of the club told Palatinate that they felt they had “no avenue for complaint” regarding incidents of discriminatory behaviour and potential misconduct involving senior members of staff.

One student claimed they experienced sustained racist abuse whilst playing for the club, including a coach describing their behaviour during a training session as “so Asian”. Another team member repeatedly shouted “coronavirus” at them during training with no intervention from coaches or other players.

The student went on to write their final year dissertation on their experiences of bigotry whilst at the club, but says no member of staff contacted them to investigate the allegations raised in the coursework after it was submitted to Durham University. The student is also currently creating an art installation based on their experience of exclusion within Team Durham.

They explained that they felt they were “not in a position of power so it was super difficult to make a formal complaint” and that they feared being “severely bullied” if they spoke out following experiences of exclusion in their first year at the club.

“I was not in a position of power, so it was super difficult to make a formal complaint”

Jeremy Cook, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) told Palatinate: “We have clear policies and procedures by which students can make complaints, and in this case we encourage the students concerned to report them via these routes, so that we can investigate properly and, where appropriate, take swift and decisive action.”

“We have a range of support and help for students wishing to make a complaint, including through colleges, departments and the Counselling Service.”

However, students told Palatinate that they were put off from raising complaints due to intimidatory behaviours or that they were not aware of the appropriate routes through which to do so.

Multiple students stated that they felt unable to raise concerns relating to claims in the sporting community of sexual misconduct carried out by a member of staff prior to their employment by Durham University.

Current and former student exec members explained that some of Team Durham’s staff members “felt like a gang of cronies” and that they are “very tight at the top”.

One former player claimed that they contacted the team’s social media account to express concerns about a coach’s inappropriate behaviour and students’ treatment within the club.

They said that the response left them feeling threatened.

“That instantaneous reaction was not very friendly. It was so confrontational, it was ‘meet with me in private’ […] it wasn’t an ‘oh, we really want to investigate find out what’s going on’. It was more, ‘do you know something that you shouldn’t?’”

Palatinate has seen emails in which, after refusing to meet privately with senior Team Durham staff to discuss the comments made, the student was threatened with referral to the University Student Misconduct office. They were later blocked from staff social media accounts and took the decision to leave the club entirely.

Other concerns about this coach’s conduct became redundant as complainees “didn’t necessarily know who to talk with”. One former Team Durham exec member had worries about the lack of a straightforward complaints procedure: “You have to essentially take a chance, depending on how in the know you are, on what member of staff to email within Team Durham. Explicitly there is no welfare structure.”

“Explicitly there is no welfare structure”

They went on to note that while there is a position specifically for welfare on the Team Durham Vice-President Committee, the position is split between welfare and outdoor sport. They felt that “that committee has had zero contact, zero responsibility this whole year”.

Members have claimed they felt unable to make complaints that would be taken seriously – partially due to the lack of a clear procedure to do so. However, Palatinate has also seen emails in which senior members of staff insisted on meeting privately with a student to discuss problems, despite students raising concerns about transparency and asking for staff attendance at general meetings to discuss issues.

One student was concerned that “if you did complain you’re always going to need more proof than what you have because they’re very very skittish about recording in Team Durham”.

Several members of the club’s executive committee also alleged that a culture of “elitism” existed between teams and that this was, in many cases, enabled by the behaviour of a senior coach.

Students described an attitude of “first team first, then the club”, in which the interests of the most talented players were prioritised at the expense of others. One former member of the club’s executive committee explained that the culture of the club had been “obliterated by how [a senior member of staff] has refused to allow proper club integration”, through “special treatment” for certain players.

A member, who was supposed to be in charge of organising coaching for the second and third teams, told another player that he “did not care about any team other than the first team. I’m here to try and win and that’s it.”

Members of the club executive committee claim that the first team were granted access to higher-quality equipment, accommodation, transport and training opportunities and that more advanced members were not compelled to pay subs by coaches despite benefitting from the majority of club expenditure.

In regards to subs, a former member of a lower-ranking team said “there’s not that much communication in how this money is exactly spent”. When a club meeting was called, a staff member described the financial problems raised as not appropriate for a public meeting. The staff member in question later did not attend.

“There’s not that much communication in how this money is exactly spent”

According to students, attempts to raise concerns about the elitism within the club “fell on deaf ears”.

One student posed a question about the issue of elitism within Team Durham at a public meeting and was later informed by a member of staff that a senior colleague was “not happy” with the student.

Several students described a culture in which students who did not toe the line were gossiped about, blocked on social media and intimidated by staff members.

A former exec member explained, “I’d find myself getting complained about and hearing I’d been gossiped about in the Maiden Castle offices by a full-grown, middle-aged man”.

This exec member also claims that the potential for staff to refer them to the Student Misconduct Office was “strongly hinted at”.

“I don’t really feel comfortable walking into Maiden Castle anymore”, they explained.

“It’s a building that I used to spend full weekends in, trying to do my job to the best of my ability and trying to get better at my sport in, [but now I’m] walking in and I’m dreading who I’m going to meet.”

Multiple students have left the club this year. A former member claimed: “At the end of the day for some people in the club it was just trying to play the sport that they really loved playing and they weren’t able to, or they were scared out of the club, or they were harassed out of the club, or they were pressured out of the club.”

The ex-player went on to explain: “It got to the point where my mental state was so weak I’ve had to literally take a break from the sport for a prolonged period of time.”

The lack of accountability felt most acutely at moments in which students sought to lodge serious complaints, also impacted the wider culture of the club.

“My mental state was so weak, I’ve had to take a break from the sport”

Students said that they felt the staff’s lack of respect for students, poor communication from senior members of staff and insufficient welfare structures within Team Durham further exacerbated the issues they experienced whilst playing for the club.

Describing the attitude of a coach at the club, one member of the student executive committee said, “it was [their] way or the highway”.

Durham’s Pro-Vice Chancellor Jeremy Cooke told Palatinate: “Right across Durham University we are working to build an environment that is respectful and where people feel comfortable to be themselves and to flourish. We want all our students to have an inspiring experience at Durham and we take the views and, where they occur, concerns of students very seriously.”

“Sport has the potential to inspire extraordinary achievements and bring people together. Our sport operations, under Team Durham, are designed to support and enable this, across the three streams of performance, participation and wider community. We have the highest student sport participation rate of any UK university, and this underpins our performance and community programmes.

Members of the club executive committee, who had been elected into their roles by their teammates, expressed frustration about the lack of trust between staff and students and the limited decision-making powers they were afforded within their roles. One student told us “there’s basically no point in having student presidents” because staff members “can override and veto the decisions that are made” with little consequence.

A former exec member said that they believed their club coach would purposely ignore and bypass them, saying that this led to them “putting in time that didn’t matter.”

“We have the highest student sport participation rate of any UK university”

Jeremy cooke, pro-vice-chancellor

Students across multiple sports likened senior exec positions, such as President and Club Captain, to “a full-time job”. They explained that the roles disproportionately impacted their academic performance and mental health, with five-to-ten person student executive committees expected to serve anything up to 200 members.

Pro-Vice-Chancellor Jeremy Cooke told Palatinate: “Student leaders are very important to the successful running of university sport and we offer a range of mentoring and leadership development support to students in such roles.

“Additionally, Team Durham staff are given comprehensive training in supporting students and work closely with colleagues in specialist services to ensure the very best support for student athletes.”

In their guidance for the recent round of exec elections, Team Durham has encouraged all clubs to have a Welfare Officer on the execs. A current exec member said: “It feels like they’re trying to put the burden of responsibility on us even more, and wash their hands of any need for them to pull their weight welfare-wise. They can claim they’re doing their bit but really they’re just getting us to do the jobs they don’t want to do.”

The exec member also said: “There was never a chance to shut off, people have no respect for your boundaries. We’re treated like staff by our members and like children by Team Durham staff.”

“You feel such a great level of responsibility to represent your club and everything that comes with it. I felt like I had to work harder and harder just to keep everyone happy and that if anything went wrong with the club, it was my fault. Trying to juggle the club, my exams and a dissertation was virtually impossible.”

Members were left with a feeling of helplessness – especially those who held positions of responsibility. Another former Team Durham exec member said: “It just all added up. And there’s no welfare in Team Durham to help with that.”

“It really really got in the way. If you try to sleep it gets in the way of sleep as well. Because you get into conversations in your head about what I could have done differently? How could I have done this differently?”

“Because what were you going to do? Who were you going to complain to?”

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