close
close

Rashford, Sterling … Kat Craig: How a ‘nerdy lawyer’ won the sports award | Sports

WWhen human rights lawyer Kat Craig was told she would be presented with the Integrity and Impact award at last month’s Sports Industry Awards for her role in the evacuation of Afghan women and other athletes when Kabul fell to the Taliban last summer, she changed her mind to refuse it.

The award went to Marcus Rashford for his campaign against food poverty, Raheem Sterling for his work against racism and former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, who became the first woman to publicly accuse US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Craig wanted to put the spotlight on something else.

Khalida Popal, one of the founders of the Afghanistan women’s national team who was responsible for exposing the horrific sexual abuse of players by former Afghan Football Association president Keramuudin Karim and linchpin of the heroic evacuation effort, should get it, argued Craig .

Unfortunately for Craig, Popal was a step ahead. “I nominated you, get your award,” the message came back.

However, Craig had a point. She was a cog in a small, hard-working machine, and emphasizes that as we sit at her north London home to discuss her career. It includes representing prisoners in Britain’s Guantánamo Bay and victims of train crashes, addressing protest laws and deaths in police and prison custody, handling some of the most traumatic cases of sporting sex abuse, and supporting the mammoth evacuation from Afghanistan.

“This is not an award that can be accepted by one person,” she says. “It was just a tremendous team effort.” Key to the team, Craig says, was Popal, who “sees a problem or a challenge that others would shy away from because it seems impossible, and just attack it, and then they have it.” Success”; Kelly Lindsey, former coach of the Afghanistan women’s national team, who “built trust and togetherness among these players under the most difficult of circumstances, despite years of circumstances that made it difficult for these women to come together”; and Fifpro Secretary General Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, whose “question is always: ‘How can we help?’ not ‘Are we liable if we don’t?’ This is the opposite of so many leading figures in sport.”

Khalida Popal, pictured in December 2020, was part of the team that helped athletes leave Afghanistan.
Khalida Popal, pictured in December 2020, was part of the team that helped athletes leave Afghanistan. Photo: Tariq Mikkel Khan/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images

Craig accepted the award on condition that she could highlight the collective and especially the women who risked their lives. “This is not a story about white rescuers,” she says. “This award and this whole process is about the women, the players, because it was their courage, their tenacity that they had to pull through. They were the people who ran that gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints and crowds to get to the airport. It wasn’t us.

“We were tired and we hadn’t showered as much as we should have because we were up for days and on the phone for days, but that was nothing compared to what they were going through.

“We sat in the safety of our own four walls, in the comfort of our own homes, and we didn’t have to deal with the terror. These were women who had actively fought to build this space for women in Afghanistan and they just watched as all their hard work crumbled in front of them.

“Then we had to ask them to make a choice which was stay and possibly die because the Taliban are knocking door to door and some of you will recognize for being women’s advocates or for leaving your family behind while your country burns.”

Craig didn’t meet the women she filled out paperwork after paperwork for, but she had “a responsibility to this team,” she says. “I feel a sense of sisterhood and I feel gratitude and admiration for what they have done. Because their fight is my fight. And when they raise their voice, that’s something that elevates all women, and I’m grateful for that.

“The work that has been done to expose abuse in women’s football has changed the narrative in Afghanistan. And changing the narrative in Afghanistan has raised awareness elsewhere to protect other people.”

During the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August, a man dragged a girl into Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport.
During the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August, a man dragged a girl into Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport. Photo: Reuters

Craig hopes the award will open the eyes of individuals and organizations to the role they can play. “It’s one thing if Rachael Denhollander or Marcus Rashford or Raheem Sterling create change, but if an unknown nobody, not a particularly athletic nerd lawyer can do it, then anyone can, right? So hopefully that will come of it. Because that’s how change happens.

“What we’ve done shows people that sometimes you have to take that leap of faith and try, even when you don’t know if you’re going to succeed. Because when you’ve made it, others will come on board with you. I have no doubt that Khalida will call me with another impossible mission and I already know I will say yes.

“It won’t always work, but we’ll all try. And if any team can do it, I believe our team can do it. That comes from trying to fight impossible odds and not being reckless, but not so afraid of failure that it paralyzes you and discourages you from trying. This is a lesson the sports industry needs to learn.”

Craig stepped away from “deeply traumatising, triggering, exhausting and painful” human rights work and into sports and social consultancy with her husband Nick Wigmore, founding Athlead, Britain’s first non-profit consultancy specializing in athlete-led charity and social change , in 2016.

Kat Craig (third left, back row) with members of the Camden and Islington United women's team.
Kat Craig (third left, back row) with members of the Camden and Islington United women’s team. Photo: Camden and Islington United

However, when she was approached about working with the Offside Trust, set up by a group of men including former professional footballers who spoke out about sexual abuse they suffered as young players, her career flipped back to where she had started. She now represents many abuse victims in sports around the world while leading Athlead.

What keeps her from burning out again is running Camden and Islington United, the community football club she co-founded with her husband. “The lesson I’ve learned in my 20+ years of working in human rights is that you inevitably see the darkest side of human nature, and that takes a toll over time,” she says.

“There are many ways you can go about it. But the most effective way is always to balance it with the light. Aside from being outside and getting my mind off some difficult issues, what really benefits me is that the young men at our club are nice.

“We work hard with them. We hold them accountable. We teach them to show a little more vulnerability to fight the toxic masculinity in football, to care for each other, to be open to criticism, to have a growth mindset, but also to challenge their stereotypes.

“We challenge them in how they talk and think about women, we challenge them in how they talk and think about homosexuality, we challenge them on all different levels and in finding their own self-worth.

“It’s great to create a safe space and environment for men to be honest about it and show a little vulnerability. You are the antidote.”

Leave a Comment