When the human rights lawyer Kat Craig was told she was going to be presented with the integrity and impact award at last month’s Sports Industry Awards for her role in the evacuation of female Afghan athletes and others as Kabul fell to the Taliban last summer, she tried to turn it down.
The award has been won by Marcus Rashford for his campaign against food poverty, Raheem Sterling for his anti-racism work and by the former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse the US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Craig wanted to point the spotlight elsewhere.
Khalida Popal, one of the founders of the Afghanistan women’s national team who was responsible for exposing the horrific sexual abuses suffered by players by the former Afghanistan football federation president Keramuudin Karim and the fulcrum of the heroic evacuation efforts should receive it, argued Craig.
Unfortunately for Craig, Popal was one step ahead. “I nominated you, go get your award,” came back the message.
Craig had a point though. She was a cog in a small, hard-working machine and stresses that as we sit in her home in north London to talk about her career. It includes representing British Guantánamo Bay detainees and train crash victims, tackling protest law and deaths in police and prison custody, handling some of sport’s most traumatising sexual abuse cases and assisting the mammoth evacuation from Afghanistan.
“This is not an award that can be accepted by any single individual,” she says. “It was just a massive team effort.” Critical to the team, Craig says, were Popal, who “sees a problem or a challenge that others would shy away from because it’s seemingly impossible and just attacks it and then she succeeds”; the former Afghanistan women’s national team coach Kelly Lindsey, who “in the most difficult circumstances built trust and togetherness among those players when for years circumstances made it hard for those women to come together”; and Fifpro’s general secretary, Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, whose “question is always ‘How can we help?’ not ‘Will we be liable if we don’t?’ Which is the antithesis of so many leaders in sports.”
Craig accepted the award on condition she could highlight the collective and, most critically, the women who risked their lives. “This is not a story of white saviours,” she says. “This award and this whole process is about the women, the players, because it was their courage, it was their tenacity, that had to see them through. They were the people running that gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints and of crowd surges to get to the airport. That wasn’t us.
“We were tired and we hadn’t showered as much as we should have because we’d been awake and on our phones for days and days and days on end, but that was nothing compared to what they were going through.
“We were sitting within the safety of four walls, in the comfort of our own homes, not having to deal with the terror. These were women who had fought actively to build up that space for women in Afghanistan and they were just watching all of their hard work crumble in front of them.
“Then we had to ask them to make a choice, which was: stay and possibly die, because the Taliban is coming knocking door-to-door for you and will recognise some of you because you’re women advocates or leave your family behind while your country burns.”
Craig has not met the women for whom she was filling out paperwork after paperwork but she had “a responsibility to that team”, she says. “I feel a sense of sisterhood and I feel gratitude and admiration for what they’ve done. Because their struggle is my struggle. And when they raise their voice, that is something that elevates all women and I’m grateful for that.
“Through the work that was done on highlighting abuse in women’s football it changed the narrative in Afghanistan. And by changing the narrative in Afghanistan, awareness was raised in other places, keeping other people safe.”
Craig hopes the award will open the eyes of individuals and organisations to the role they can play. “It’s one thing if Rachael Denhollander or Marcus Rashford or Raheem Sterling create change, but if some unknown nobody, not terribly athletic nerdy lawyer can do it then everybody can, right? So that’s what I hope comes from it. Because that’s how change happens.
“What we did shows people you sometimes have to take that leap of faith and give it a go even if you don’t know if you’ll succeed. Because once you’ve succeeded other people will come on board. I have no doubt Khalida’s going to call me with some other impossible mission and I already know I’ll say yes.
“It won’t always work but we’ll all give it a go. And if any team can do it, I believe our team can. That comes from trying to fight impossible odds and not being reckless but not being so afraid of failure that it paralyses you and prevents you from trying. That is a lesson the sports industry needs to learn.”
Craig stepped away from “deeply traumatising, triggering, exhausting and painful” human rights work and into sport and social-impact consultancy with her husband, Nick Wigmore, setting up Athlead, the UK’s first not-for-profit consultancy specialising in athlete-led charity and social change, in 2016.
However, when she was approached about working with the Offside Trust, which was founded by a group of men, including former professional footballers, who spoke out about sexual abuse they had suffered as young players, her career veered back towards where it began. Now she represents many abuse victims in sport across the world while running Athlead.
What keeps her from being burned out again is running Camden and Islington United, the community-owned football club she co-founded with her husband. “The lesson I’ve learned working in human rights for over 20 years is that inevitably you see the darkest side of human nature and that takes its toll over time,” she says.
“There are lots of ways you can tackle that. But the most effective is always to balance it out with the light. One of the things that really benefits me, other than it being outside and a distraction from some difficult issues, is that the young men in our club are nice.
“We work hard with them. We hold them to account. We teach them to show a little bit more vulnerability to combat the toxic masculinity that exists in football, to care for each other, to be open minded to criticism, to have a growth mindset, but also to challenge their stereotypes.
“We challenge them on the way they speak about and think about women, we challenge them on the way they speak about and think about homosexuality, we challenge them on all different levels and on finding their own sense of self-worth.
“Creating a safe space and an environment for men where they can be honest about that and show a bit of vulnerability is great. They are the antidote.”