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OPINION: Why the ‘greenest team in the world’ partnered up with the notoriously unethical Sports Direct

On one hand is an innovative football club with sustainability at the heart of its ethos, on the other is one of Europe’s most controversial retailers – Sports Direct.

Since the start of the 2021/2022 season Forest Green Rovers Women have been sponsored by the self-proclaimed UK’s No. 1 Sports Retailer with Sports Direct’s logo appearing on the team’s shirts.

Mike Ashley, Chief Executive Officer of Sports Direct and former Newcastle United Football Club owner, is a man shrouded in controversy, with the unorthodox retail magnate frequently in the headlines for his non-conformist business practices.

Sports Direct’s working conditions have been compared to those of a Victorian workhouse, with zero-hours contracts, and inadequate breaks, all common occurrences at the firm.

As for Forest Green Rovers (FGR), the club are recognised by FIFA as the ‘world’s greenest football club’, with an organic pitch and shirts made out of recycled coffee beans, just a few highlights of their pro-environmental behaviour.

Therefore, the partnership seems quite juxtaposed with two contrasting companies collaborating, despite their opposing beliefs – why has it happened?

The relationship has materialised as part of Sports Direct’s new Equal Play initiative – a scheme trying to close the gender gap in sport by accelerating diversity and equality in the game.

With the Covid-19 pandemic causing havoc for female grassroots football, Sports Direct’s funding will assist the FGR Women’s team by providing sport science services, and embedding the women’s team in the club.

FGR recently moved to integrate the women’s team within the club, with the Sports Direct partnership helping to develop their ambition to compete in women’s football.

Hannah Dingley became the first female to manage an academy at a Football League club when she was given the role at FGR, and she intends to launch a girl’s academy that will mirror the club’s current boys set up.

FGR Women and the pending girls academy will join the men’s first team at the new facilities set to be built at Eco Park – the new FGR complex.

While the partnership between FGR and Sports Direct has plenty of benefits for the club, with Dingley stating the “support from Sports Direct will greatly raise the profile of plans and inspire the next generation to get involved in the game”, the association of the club with the notoriously unethical company of Sports Direct has raised eyebrows amongst supporters.

FGR supporters understand the need for financial support in order to grow the women’s team and business, but think the poor ethical decisions from Ashley doesn’t support the club’s ethos on a larger scale.

While their Equal Play initiative seeks to provide equal pay within women’s sport and improve gender inclusivity, there have been several stories of inequality and sexism within the company.

A former Sports Direct employee that wished to remain anonymous, experienced gender discrimination during her time at the company, stating: “There’s a huge culture of sexism, male managers think they can get away with lewd comments.”

It was also revealed in 2018, that female employees earn 6.3 per cent less then men according to their median gender pay gap figures.

The Sports Direct sponsorship may have helped FGR Women massively this season in terms of funding, but surely the club could’ve partnered with a more ethical firm, one that lines up with their forward thinking ideologies.

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