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Time to present a United Front

Former England international Steve Darlow says that it is time for the basketball community to move in the same direction rather than pulling apart.

I would like to take this opportunity to make a ‘call for a united front’ to the people in England who have a passion for the sport of basketball. I have been involved in the game of basketball for most of my life. I was fortunate to come across many people in the game who had a terrific passion for their sport, something which rubbed off. 

Roy Birch, Chris Worcester, Mark Dunning, Brani Bazany, Dan Lloyd, Mark Clark, to name a few, gave me my passion for basketball. It was due to them that I was able to achieve my ambition of playing for my country. I am now employed by the English Basketball Association to develop basketball in England, feel privileged to be in a position to do so and accept the responsibility that this carries.

However I am aware, through various means, of the criticism that the EBBA and it’s administration is currently facing, some of which has been recently published through this medium. I would like to assure everyone, that my passion for basketball remains. This was not lost the day I was employed by the EBBA. 

My professional colleagues are also passionate about basketball, that is one of the reasons they were employed and they did not lose it the day they were employed. I can assure anyone that all the EBBA professionals fully sympathise with the majority of criticisms that are made. They have decided to make changing the system their livelihood. My fellow Regional Development Managers are equally passionate about the game. To all the critics out there, do you really think that as soon as someone becomes employed by the EBBA their passion disappears. 

The issue for basketball is not anyone’s professional or volunteer commitment to the game. The issue for basketball is of a political and cultural nature. We need to present a united front to the policy makers in this country in order to progress our sport. Below I have taken three areas crucial to basketball in order to demonstrate how a political/cultural change is needed in order to progress the development of basketball.

Firstly schools basketball. Quite simply to achieve more schools basketball the government needs to give schools back control of their sports halls/gymnasiums (with finance not the only measure). I lecture undergraduate teacher trainees. They are passionate for interschool competition but once in their school they have to compete on a financial basis to get into their facilities. I believe CCT did more to damage to interschool basketball and school club links than anything else. 

Teachers are snowed under with the governments passion for testing and bureaucracy (does this, and the previous, government believe in trust). Give teachers back their time and you will get the growth in interschool sport again. So, we can either blame each other in basketball for the poor levels of competitive schools basketball (indeed competitive sport) or we can present a united front to government bodies (local and national) to give PE teachers back their facilities and time, and then we can help them deliver. (NB in the current environment we will have to look at central venue leagues as the means of increasing schools participation).

 Secondly girls/women’s basketball. There is a decline in female participation in sport. Basketball is no exception. I believe this a cultural phenomenon and I would firmly blame a lot of this upon the media’s portrayal of the young girl/women. Women’s team sport is not seen or portrayed by the media as a means for leading a healthy lifestyle. In a recent study, published in the press, dieting, health clubs and indeed smoking were perceived by women as the means for losing weight. Try this out. 

Ask any non sporting women you know how they would go about becoming more healthy (and what their perception of health is) and see how many mention becoming involved in team sport. As any health professional will now, (indeed parent, teacher, sensible human being etc.) weight loss does not necessarily equal a healthy human being and can in fact produce completely the opposite. We must stop blaming each other for the decline in women’s basketball. Yes we have lessons to learn and we are looking to address the issue through programmes such as Active Sports. 

One thing we can all do is present a united front against the media to change the perception of the healthy female. We must make them show how team sport can create physical, mental (self-esteem and self confidence) and social health. If there is anyone out there who buys newspapers that stereotypes females, then the first thing you can do is stop being part of the demand for the current improper media image of the healthy female. 

Incidentally I have heard a lot of anecdotal evidence of the fact that as girls approach GCSE level the fall out from sports participation increases. I am told by many teachers that the girls are a lot more conscientious than the boys. Again our government places considerable pressure on teachers to achieve results, this is passed on to the pupils and something has to give. Any mature adult knows that the education of our young people is more than just achieving qualifications. We all know the role sport can have in producing the rounded individual; giving them team, social and leadership skills.

Thirdly facilities. We all know that access to quality facilities is a key issue for the development of our game. But control of most local authority facilities has gone to the accountants. I can assure you that as Regional Development Managers we are constantly fighting the battle to get cheaper courts. I am constantly challenging local authority leisure departments to reconsider their pricing structures (the EBBA facility strategy helps this and has already had some effect). However until local government starts measuring the value of facilities in more than just financial terms we will struggle. If everyone in basketball lobbied the national and local government to measure facility use in terms of social benefit (which I know Best Value may do) then we will be able to displace five a side football and badminton.

 I have only really touched on three areas, women’s participation, schools basketball and facility access to demonstrate the point about how we must achieve cultural change. The professionals at the EBBA are looking at working on all these issues, amongst others, but they work within the environment as it stands. If there is dissatisfaction then there is now a democratic system in place for people to affect and challenge the national policy for basketball, and I would defend any volunteers right to do so. 

The EBBA is now more ‘open’ than ever before. All your Regional Development Manager’s work programmes are presented to and agreed by democratically elected Regional Management Committees. There is no doubt that we have a very dedicated volunteer network, who put in considerable time. Do remember that most of the professionals in basketball started off as volunteers, indeed most of them still put in the volunteer time outside of their jobs.

Whilst the in fighting continues we will implode. We must present a united front to national and local sport policy makers to achieve long term progress. Continual internal blame seeking is self destructive. If everyone in basketball wrote to their local councillor and challenged why the cost of the local sports hall is so expensive; if everyone in basketball wrote to our Minister for Sport and Minister for Education asking them to give PE teachers back their facilities and time; if everyone in basketball thought about their media consumption and how it perpetuates female stereotyping; then we are starting to effect the cultural change that is needed for our sport to achieve it’s potential.

As any winning coach knows (and to paraphrase a well know cliché) ‘United we win, divided we lose’.

Steve Darlow is Regional Development Manager (East & East Midlands) for the English Basketball Association. He is writing however in a personal capacity.

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