We are in the middle of a major kerfuffle in UK National Hunt racing.
The jockeys Bryony Frost and Robbie Dunne have been the central participants in a BHA inquiry into allegations by Frost that she was bullied over an extended period of time by Dunne, seemingly in and around jockey’s weighing rooms in the UK.
The BHA has found Dunne guilty of bullying and other unacceptable behavior, and has handed down a punishment of a 15 month suspension, with 3 months suspended, which, if implemented, is highly likely to end Dunne’s career as an English National Hunt jockey.
The affair has led to massive public interest, and impassioned commentary by a number of current and past participants in the sport.
It has also showed up a massive culture and comprehension gap between many jockeys, past and present, and the expectations of the outside world with respect to what constitutes acceptable workplace behavior.
The bottom line is the non-negotiable fact that bullying is not acceptable in any workplace. This should not even be a topic of debate. It is dysfunctional, divisive and destructive.
Not every person in a workplace is popular. History also shows us that new people entering a workplace who are seen by established participants in that workplace as “different”, for any reason, be it sex, religion, ethnicity, origins, you name it, are likely to be resented by existing workplace incumbents. This will be especially true if the new entrants start to be seen as successful, inside and/or outside the workplace.
When the workplace is part of a business where many of the participants do their jobs in public, which is definitely the case for jockeys, the stakes become higher. Behavior inside professional sports becomes potentially public, which increases the impacts of both positive behaviors and negative behaviors.
Any successful modern professional sport derives a significant part of its overall income from commercial relationships and sponsorships by businesses. Big businesses can provide large amounts of money to improve the conditions for all participants in a sport. (To use the old expression, a rising tide lifts all boats). However, big businesses have some non-negotiable principles that they generally stick to when deciding whether to support a sport. Among them are the sport’s reputation for equitable behavior, both internally and externally, and whether it is a credible sport with respect to how it operates. Big businesses like stability and, beyond short-term controversies based on sporting rivalries, they dislike controversy, particularly if it concerns the governance of the sport.
The Bryony Frost affair (if I can call it that) therefore has impacts beyond the two named participants, and even beyond the somewhat private and insular world of jockey changing rooms. If businesses see bad behavior inside the sport being tolerated, they can and will conclude that this is not a sport that they would like to be associated with. That is the main reason that fundamental breaches of the rules inside horse racing usually result in draconian punishments, up to and including life bans. The sport’s credibility cannot be maintained if, for example, cheating is shown to exist.
In fact, Dunne himself was involved in a breach of the rules several years ago, when he ended up being banned for 15 days after a weighing-out mix-up ended in him riding a winner at Chepstow carrying 0.4 pounds less weight than he should have done. Dunne was not to blame for the mix-up, but the assistant trainer for the horse then created the issue by attempting to sneak 0.5 pounds of weight into the weighing-in hidden in Dunne’s riding breeches.
The dispute between Frost and Dunne seems to have unfolded over an extended period of time, in an environment that is very male-dominated. All of the signs exist that the male participants in the controversy failed to understand that what they might term “locker room talk”, uttered mano a mano, would be interpreted by female participants as both insulting and threatening. The male core of the sport regarded their approach as correct, and expected any new participants to conform to those rules or go elsewhere. When Bryony Frost refused to conform, and made it clear that she regarded the attempts to intimidate her as unacceptable, that male-dominated world operated in an utterly predictable fashion. It closed ranks and attempted to freeze her out by solidarity.
Many past and current participants in and around UK National Hunt racing have, quite simply, failed to understand that once you have people in your organization with different values, you are unlikely to be able to continue with the same values. That’s the fundamental result of increasing diversity, especially in the community of jockeys.
Since the announcement of the BHA verdict, a lot of the attempts to justify the events, unfortunately, read like the efforts of the tone-deaf to defend the indefensible. The BJA issued a lengthy statement complaining about the lack of what they termed “due process”, and an unfair focus on weighing-room culture.
The disciplinary processes in sports do not have to conform to the legal standards of the criminal justice system or the civil justice system. Participants in all sports usually have to sign legally binding agreements to submit to the arbitration and disciplinary processes of the sport. The BHA investigation was not a court of law, so complaints about “due process” are, strictly, a diversion. From what I can discover, however, the proceedings closely resembled those in a civil suit, with both sides being able to present their case and evidence, and cross-examination being allowed.
As the closest that there is to a trade union for jockeys, they presumably felt that they had to defend Dunne, possibly since a lot of jockeys might be thinking “if it can happen to him, it could happen to any of us”. In my opinion, they have a good argument that the punishment here is disproportionate. However, the robust defence of Dunne does rather beg the question: why? He was found guilty not once, but four times. This does not look like a grey-area “he said she said” kind of case. It looks pretty open and shut. The BJA is unlikely to get very far appealing the verdicts. The most they could do is to appeal the punishment, which is draconian. As a general rule, I worry that punishments like this one are formulated to “send a message”, which sounds suitably tough and dynamic in public, but often results in a single guilty person being over-punished, while other guilty parties go unpunished.
The idea of course, is that the hefty punishment for the one unlucky person will scare everybody else into behaving better. However, in a situation where the behaviors are part of a deep-rooted culture, a single punishment alone is unlikely to promote change.
The statements issued by the BJA and the female jockeys (unnamed, which is always dangerous), are notable for their tone of shrill defensiveness, and general air of “there’s no real problem here, so stop picking on us”. Completely missing from the statements is any unforced admission that a significant problem might exist or might have existed. This is the position of participants who are in denial. The reluctance of the female jockeys to identify themselves speaks volumes about the overall atmosphere in the sport around this issue. They read like low-level hirelings for a Mafia operation attempting to deny that they witnessed anything.
The more astonishingly dangerous aspect of the affair has been the extent to which long-term participants and leaders in the sport have failed to understand the significance of the issues, and are busy attempting to minimize them. AP McCoy, whose voice carries a lot of weight because of his tremendous record in the sport, currently seems to be blocking anybody on social media who argues with him over his views on the affair. This is not the action of a smart person. It’s the action of a defensive and resentful person who fails to understand the wider implications of the internal culture of a sport being seen to be out of alignment with the modern world.
Bryony Frost’s position is now very similar to that of most whistleblowers who go outside of a corporation or organization to publicize dysfunctional, bad or illegal behaviors by that organization. Many people inside racing will probably regard her as a “snitch”, laying bare and publicising things that Should Not Be Public. So we can expect that she will be penalized, probably by variants of The Silent Treatment. She does have options, including relocating to Ireland, which might turn out to be a better medium-term move, since Ireland is still in the EU, so her riding opportunities may be wider. If she does relocate, that would be a pretty damning indictment of both the current culture, and its lack of willingness to adapt.
In summary: a series of incidents of bullying and other obnoxious dysfunctional behavior occurred within the National Hunt jockey community, in a culture where silent acquiescence is the norm. Failure by a victim of bullying to accept the culture has led to an investigation, and a guilty party has been punished. Previously silent enablers are now lashing out, exhibiting all of the signs of both denial and guilt.
The pathologies and behaviors are obvious and familiar to me.
What is interesting is what happens next. When an organization is informed that accepted practices are no longer acceptable, there can be a variety of responses:
- Circling The Wagons – There is no attempt to introduce any change. The organization convinces itself that there is no real problem, and continues as before. Rationalizations like “isolated incident” fill the air.
- Lipstick On the Pig – a token attempt is made to introduce change, usually via expensive publicity-driven actions, without addressing or preventing the underlying dysfunctional behaviors. Gullible or credulous observers see the initial effort, and assume that all will be well.
- Half Assed – a sincere attempt is made to introduce change, but it suffers from lack of attention, resources, and follow-through, so the effect and impacts are limited. However, there is enough superficial change for the major players to declare victory and move on to other (hopefully less contentious) topics
- Proper change – a determined attempt is made to introduce change, resistance is avoided or crushed, and real change occurs.
We will have to see what the BHA ends up doing, apart from punishing Robbie Dunne, in order to change the culture in the medium-term. Cultural change is always hard. My expectations, sadly, are for some combination of (2) and (3) above. I do not think that (1) is a credible position, but (4) may require too much effort and attention.