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We needed Vaughan to talk about racism years ago, not when he is in the crosshairs

·5-min read

On Saturday morning the BBC broadcast an interview with the former England captain Michael Vaughan about accusations of racism, that he has repeatedly denied, made against him by his former teammate Azeem Rafiq. If it was a deeply uncomfortable experience for Vaughan, who has been dropped from the Test Match Special team covering the forthcoming Ashes, then he was at least optimistic. “How we move on from this situation is the key,” Vaughan argued with regards to the Yorkshire scandal exposed by Rafiq. “I firmly believe that it’s education, honest conversations, people admitting that things may have been said and sticking their hands up.”

On the most serious accusation against him – that he told four Asian players including Rafiq in 2009 that there were “too many of you lot” – Vaughan was not sticking his hand up. Rafiq’s version of events has been supported by two of the other players, Adil Rashid and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan; Ajmal Shahzad says he did not hear it and praised the backing he had from senior Yorkshire players at the time. Vaughan reiterated that he had no memory of making the comment. He rejected Rafiq’s suggestion that he may have forgotten he said it because he did not fully grasp its overtones. Still, he told interviewer Dan Walker, he wanted to apologise to Rafiq. “I’m sorry for the hurt that he’s gone through.”

Related: Ashley Giles suggests Michael Vaughan should be given ‘second chance’

It was a tough watch. As with many England cricket fans who came of age in the summer of 2005, Vaughan was my sporting hero. Still is, in many ways. We worked together at the Telegraph. I occasionally ghosted his column. He was unfailingly friendly, generous with his time, a devastatingly insightful analyst of cricket. The point of telling you all this is that for all the triumphalism in some quarters at Vaughan’s downfall on social media, none of this feels remotely pleasant or cathartic.

But perhaps Vaughan’s greatest gift in his post-retirement life was his ability to play the game. Not cricket; the game of media cycles and bought takes, the ability to get just the right sort of rise out of the right sort of people. On Twitter he created a sort of clubbable, bloke-in-the-pub character who would declare it “vino o’clock” and share spiky banter with Australian and Indian fans. What Vaughan grasped above all was the essential disposability of opinion in the digital era. People wanted them; he supplied them; they reacted. Tomorrow, the game starts all over again.

And so the curious timing of his interview – almost a year after Vaughan first became aware of Rafiq’s accusations, more than three weeks after his self-exculpatory Telegraph column – bore all the hallmarks of reputation laundry. Vaughan apologised for some of his more reprehensible older tweets, including one suggesting that Moeen Ali should spend his time in between Test matches asking Muslims if they are terrorists. But it also felt like an attempt to move on, rebuild his reputation, launch the comeback. “Society is a different place,” he claimed. “We all know things back then were wrong, and now things are right and getting better.”

It would be easy to see why Vaughan might view his fate as essentially an accident of timing. In 1995, Henry Blofeld was commentating on TMS when he remarked upon a balcony overlooking the ground where people could watch for free. “The Jewish stand,” he called it. Four years ago, way back in 2017, Geoffrey Boycott told the audience at a corporate dinner at Edgbaston that he should “black my face” if he wanted to receive a knighthood. Both apologised and carried on working as normal. When first alerted to the accusations, who can really be surprised that Vaughan asked the investigation panel for guarantees of confidentiality and then withdraw his cooperation? But sure, let’s have some frank and honest conversations now.

In the past couple of weeks Vaughan’s case has become something of a cause celebre on the right, which has neatly folded the BBC’s decision into their ongoing debate on cancel culture. A “show trial”, a writer in the Spectator called Walker’s interview. This is a fiction you can maintain if, like many commentators on the right, you are thick and vindictive. Vaughan is neither. “We’ve got too much ‘he said, she said, did they say’,” Vaughan told the BBC. “And I think we’ve got to move on from accusations of conversations from many years ago. There’s a bigger picture here.” On the central charge, however, he denies even the merest uncertainty or ambiguity over his version of events.

Related: Monty Panesar: ‘My message to British Asian players is focus on your cricket’

And so what people call “cancel culture” is really just the sheer impossibility of engaging anybody in power on serious issues until the last possible moment. We needed Vaughan to be talking about this stuff – Rafiq and racism in Yorkshire cricket years ago, instead of waiting until he was in the crosshairs. If the BBC had taken Blofeld’s antisemitic slur more seriously in 1995, or reckoned with Boycott’s domestic violence conviction before they rehired him in 2005, or taken a stand in 2017, we might not be here now.

Ashley Giles, the director of England men’s cricket, has talked of the importance of “second chances”. Every day of cricket’s silence was a chance. Go back through history and there were opportunities to educate, to forgive, to have the difficult conversations that are deemed so crucial now. Instead the most powerful people in cricket simply clung to their omerta like a blanket, carried on cashing the cheques, consolidating their position, until nothing less than a biblical torrent of shame and rage could awaken them.

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