The Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD) hosted a focus group workshop on the intersection of basketball and diplomacy across the African continent last week in Paris, during the ‘week of basketball’ that led into the National Basketball Association (NBA) Paris Global Game.

The workshop – co-directed by CISD’s Dr J. Simon Rofe and Dr Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff – took advantage of NBA Africa’s presence in the French capital to discuss basketball’s development; the implications and uses of basketball diplomacy as the NBA launches its first league outside of North America this March, the Basketball Africa League (BAL); and the role of African diasporas in Paris, London, New York, and beyond in this initiative. 

The intersection of basketball and diplomacy, where communication, representation, and negotiation occur on and off the court, has a long history. It is one that dates to the sport’s invention in 1891 by a Canadian (James Naismith) in the United States (Springfield, Massachusetts) and rapid dissemination via Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) educators around the world in the 1890s, including to France (1893), Brazil (1894), China (1895), and Australia (1897).

The sport has thus long been a vector of informal people-to-people cultural exchange and knowledge transmission, as well as an influencer of global movements, particularly as they relate to race and social justice. 

I was privileged to participate in this, our second basketball and diplomacy workshop, an exciting event that signified a new horizon in the role basketball can play in Africa to assist SGD goals and global relations. Hosted at the University of London in Paris, workshop attendees – which included NBA and NGO stakeholders – considered what basketball diplomacy means for the industry, and for society.

A key issue addressed was how basketball diplomacy plays a role in Africa today and can potentially help shape the continent’s future – both its image, as well as its economic and social development. However, basketball is not exempt from the universal issues, including equality and diversity to name just two, surrounding international sporting activities. 

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Basketball can be played anywhere, unlike a number of other sports, meaning it is a low-resource endeavour that does not require expensive equipment or access to expensive-to-maintain terrain. Therefore, there aren’t the same barriers of class disparity among players that is found in other sports, such as American football or equestrian. Yet, this does not prevent disparities of opportunities between players in different countries of the world. 

Discussion highlighted that there is imbalance in player development between well-off countries and others. This is a major issue when it comes to helping players reach their full potential – particularly with regards to the level of coaching available to talented ‘ballers.’ Many basketball players in Africa are disadvantaged by the absence of a large enough pool of highly skilled and experienced coaches to nurture them towards the professional and elite level.

All too often this means that many talented players will not reach their full potential or have their talent nurtured and recognised. In places such as Ghana or Egypt, no matter how talented a player is, their skills can be nurtured only so far, in comparison to players in countries like France, Serbia, or the United States, where elite coaching is more readily available. 

It is thus necessary to create opportunities for professional player development in Africa to bridge this inequality gap. Otherwise the talent pool and the opportunity to be present on a global platform will not be fully explored. In turn, this prevents less developed nations from creating soft power and accessing dialogues to build diplomatic relations through basketball diplomacy. 

Upon reflection, could there be a parallel drawn between government agendas and the opportunities (or in this instance, lack of) given to sports players? This made me consider how sport – in this case, basketball – was heavily influenced by western capital, whether this be through third party stakeholders or governance. 

‘If you want to make history, you have to do historic things’ – Kobe Bryant

Another illuminating point of conversation was that basketball has a special ability to create family-centred activities which transcend through first and second generation identity-related issues. The ball and hoop, although seemingly simple, have a beautiful elegance in their ability to cut through complex social issues and break class, racial, gender, and other barriers. This bridge-building ability shows basketball’s invaluable potential to be used as a tool in other vectors, such as politics or education.

Two attendees identified this value and started a basketball tournament for teenagers in Paris. They discussed the use of basketball to help bring together youths from all walks of life across the greater Parisian region, especially for the girls who participate in their programs. In their view, basketball has helped knit together the larger community in ways that other cultural endeavours have not. 

Importantly, the discussion touched on the shifts in fan consumption of basketball in addition to the influence of digital technologies. For instance, in the 1990s, basketball influenced and represented parts of the leisure industry from sport, fashion, television, and music, to movies such as the iconic film Space Jam and television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

It was undeniably consumed directly or indirectly and able to influence a lifestyle, whether or not you were a fan or had an interest in the game. The internet and digital boom, including social media, created new implications for how basketball is enjoyed. The ripple effect this may have for African and diaspora youths to consume and engage in informal basketball diplomacy vis-a-vis the BAL is thus an important consideration.

The popularity of basketball is no longer at the levels it was at in the 1990s, which is potentially influenced by the shift how it is experienced and enjoyed.

This workshop, humble in nature but big in spirit, has identified an incredibly important moment of change. Basketball has been associated with history, culture, race and identity, technology, business, and international relations. It is an opportunity to shape topical debates and ethical issues of today’s news climate.

There is clearly much effort invested by members of the basketball community in building the game and its uses in the sport and diplomacy nexus, placing basketball diplomacy firmly into the diplomatic toolbox.

 

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