Celebrating Black History Month with Ali James

Date: 29 Oct 2020


To celebrate Black History Month in conjunction with Premiership Rugby, we speak to Wasps' Head of Medical Services Ali James to hear about his journey.

As the son of a former professional boxer, James believes he was always destined for a career in sport.

The now 41-year-old tried his hand at anything and everything as a youngster, and while a career in the ring went against his father’s wishes, a love affair with rugby began when he was 13.

Having played throughout school, James was set on a career in physiotherapy and continued to combine his two loves while studying at the University of the West of England, where he linked up with the Bristol academy.  

After completing a masters at Oxford University and enjoying two years as a professional at Gloucester, the penny finally dropped that James could marry his two loves in his career, and he went on to join Wasps in 2012, where he has been ever since.  

“Rugby’s clearly been a massive love for me since my early teens, so I feel very fortunate to be able to work in that world, and combine it with physiotherapy - my other love,” the former centre said.  

“I always knew physiotherapy was the route I wanted to go down, and rugby really was just something that had been going pretty well in the background. My time at Gloucester almost felt like a sabbatical because I had my qualifications and experience behind me.

“Up until that point I was very much a physio on one side and a rugby player on another, but once the Wasps job came along I never looked back. It’s a great club with great people, but on top of that I love being a physiotherapist. To be able to do the job I love within rugby is incredible.”  

Though having grown up in South-West Oxfordshire - a predominantly white area - James insists he has never felt as though those opportunities weren’t open to him because of the colour of his skin.  

But, he believes a number of subtleties throughout his upbringing - including the identification of black role models in rugby, as well as his dad in a wider sporting context - did inspire him to go on and pursue his passion.  

He said: “I have to reflect on my experiences, and when I think of the many people throughout my education, and professional and sporting lives, I believe they have just seen me for the person I am and the skills I have.  

“But while I portray an optimistic and grateful outlook, I can’t look past the subtlety of being one of the few black people in a school or a rugby club, looking for role models to make you feel inside that you belong in those environments.

“I was lucky to be able to watch Paul Hull when I was coming through, who eventually coached me at Bristol. I was also given a poster of Jeremy Guscott by one of my teachers at school, and at that time I didn’t know the impact he was having on me.”  

While the issue of race hasn’t proved an obvious barrier to James’ personal journey, he is proud of the achievements of leading figures standing up for racial equality across the world.  

With October being Black History Month, James hopes shining a light on opportunities that may be perceived as unattainable could persuade people from all backgrounds to follow their passions, whether in rugby or another field.

He added: “With my dad being a boxer, I probably watched every Muhammad Ali documentary growing up, and today one of the figureheads would be Colin Kaepernick. Both of those guys are inspiring people with the integrity to stand up for their beliefs no matter what sacrifices they were forced to make.

“While I might not think there have been many barriers on the way to where I’ve got to, there could be a perception that black people are under-represented in my line of work.

“That may in itself make people think such roles aren’t available to them, so hopefully highlighting my story can show that doors are open to people, and encourage them to follow their passions and interests.”