LGBT+ History Month: Basketball can drive forward important conversations

The UK celebrates LGBT+ History Month every February, allowing individuals and organisations alike to shed new light on the history of the LGBT+ community.

First started by Schools Out UK, the awareness month has for over 15 years highlighted LGBT+ issues, encouraged inclusivity and understanding, and continues the march for further equality. The second month of the year was chosen because it coincides with the abolition of Section 28 in 2003, which was brought in to prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities.

Following the anti-racism protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, Basketball England listened to the basketball community on the issue of discrimination and in 2021 set up its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee to help take a strong approach against discrimination and promote fairness and respect.

At the time, CEO Stewart Kellet wrote that ‘a panel of diverse individuals, with the expertise and experience can help us tackle all forms of discrimination and promote inclusion’.

Carl Ntifo plays for Loughborough Riders in NBL1

Help basketball look and feel more inclusive

On the committee is Loughborough Riders power forward Carl Ntifo, who is a BSc Computer Science undergraduate and Sports Officer for Loughborough University’s LGBT+ Association Committee – dedicated to creating ‘fun, supportive and empowering spaces for everyone identifying under the LGBT+ umbrella’.

When BE announced it was launching its ED&I Committee, Ntifo saw it as an opportunity to fuse his love for basketball with his university role and help steer the organisation in making basketball in England look, feel and be more inclusive, and ultimately, get more people playing.

The 23-year-old started playing ball at high school, before his coach recommended he join British basketball legend Steve Bucknall’s London Thunder basketball programme. After a couple of seasons with the Thunder, Ntifo finished his schooling and went the the US to study and play at DME Academy in Daytona Beach, Florida and then at Claflin University, Orangeburg, South Carolina. He eventually returned home to continue his studies at Loughborough University and play in NBL Division 1 for the Riders, and for the London Knights – the UK’s only competitive gay men’s basketball team.

However, the environments in which he played weren’t always inclusive or welcoming of people from the LGBT+ community and he said homophobic comments or ‘what other people perceive to be silly little jokes’ would sometimes have a detrimental effect on his mental well-being.

“I wouldn’t say that most of my experiences playing basketball have been positive as a gay man, to be honest,” said Ntifo. “I wanted to return home to the UK because it’s home and I felt I’d be more accepted over here. Loughborough has been the best place that I can be.

“People will say comments, things that they think are funny or silly little jokes and it’s kind of always like a heart sinking feeling. It would happen mostly when we were sat as a team and nobody knew that I was gay, so they’re just making jokes and I’m just there and as soon as I hear the comment my heart sinks. They haven’t even thought about the implications of what they’re saying – it can be really hurtful.

“The Knights helped me become more comfortable with being gay and playing basketball. I felt immediately safe and very comfortable. I think when people hear about LGBT+ teams there’s kind a reaction of ‘why do they need to be separated or why can’t they just join our team; why don’t they feel safe or comfortable’.

"[With LGBT+ clubs] you’re immediately taken away from that space where somebody might say something or somebody may be intolerant because you know that nobody’s going to be.”

Harsh on homophobia

Through his role at Loughborough University, Ntifo has seen the types of initiatives that can help increase the visibility of people from the LGBT+ community, creating conversations and educational experiences. One he thinks could work for the basketball community, and that is replicated in athletics, is a ‘self-sustaining’ LGBT+ Pride Network that would work all year round to help deliver events and campaigns.

It could even help BE work with clubs to use their social media channels to show their stance on inclusivity by taking part in things like Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, supporting LGBT+ History Month and being ‘harsh on homophobia’.

“Lots of jokes and comments slide and go under the table," said Ntifo. “And from my experience, having heard those things, it says to me that you don’t care.

“Homophobia won’t be accepted, regardless of whether you’re the London Knights or London Thunder.”

Ashlea Smith (second in from left) worked on Living Sport's Play with Pride project to support young LGBT+ people to be more physically active

Play with Pride

UKactive Strategic Lead for Children, Young People and Families and fellow BE ED&I Committee Member Ashlea Smith believes basketball is one of the most progressive sports in the country and wants everyone to feel they can play.

“Basketball is my sport and I’ve gained so much from the game. I get that it’s more than a sport, it’s a community and one of the most progressive in the country, so why do we want to stop anybody taking part. Why do we want to close the doors off to specific cohorts of people? We can educate ourselves and make it as welcoming as possible.”

In a previous role at Active Partnership Living Sport, Smith worked on a project called Play with Pride, which set about understanding the barriers for young people from the LGBT+ community to access sport and physical activity and educating people of all backgrounds to demonstrate inclusivity in their delivery of sport and physical activity.  

Armed with insight from young people, Smith partnered with a charity called the Kite Trust that works with young LGBT+ people in Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and surrounding areas to tackle inequalities through consultancy, training and education.

“For me, it was about understanding how people from specific communities feel welcome, included and safe. It was about going to speak to them and asking them what they needed.”

Basketball England ED&I Committee member James Swanson

‘Sport has the power to change the world’

Former-Fan Experience Manager at Harlequin Football Club, James Swanson, thinks that every club, team, sport and NGB must find its own lane and work out how it wants to communicate its inclusion messaging, “Ultimately what I want is greater visibility for the [LGBT+] community to spark that conversation,” said the 31-year-old. “You can’t ever devalue the power of visibility and what events can do. And the progress that it encourages.

“Nelson Mandela once said that ‘sport has the power to change the world’. I’ve worked in the sports industry for many years, and I still believe that. When you have fixed eyes on a live moment, what you communicate at that time speaks volumes about who you are, and you can break through the clutter and use that for positive societal good and progress.”

The BE ED&I Committee member, who now plies his trade at Arsenal FC, looks at what the fan experience is like on any given match day – what the spectator sees, what they can do, what they hear and what their journey is like from their house to the venue.

Whilst he was at Quins, he implemented a LGBT+ Pride Game and LGBT+ themed match day, allowing the rugby club to communicate their values about key causes throughout the season.

“I identified an opportunity to look at the way we ran matchdays, the way we did matchday themes, identifying some real key causes and really key things to our value set. The main initiative was the introduction of professional rugby union’s first LGBT+ pride game in February 2020.

“I spent three or four months looking at the wider rugby landscape and the wider rugby family so that what we put together for the match day in regard to how we positioned ourselves, what we said, what we did, would resonate with the wider rugby community.”

‘A safe place for all identities and communities’

For Swanson, that included getting to understand the role that the International Gay Rugby association plays, reaching out to the Kings Cross Steelers, which is the world’s first gay-inclusive rugby union club, and creating pieces of content that highlighted the stories of LGBT+ people within the Quins and wider rugby community.

This season, Quins delivered its third pride-themed fixture and the feedback from fans has been, on the whole, very positive.

“People understand why that conversation needs to be had. People are very proud that Harlequins as a brand has taken that role. So far, none of the other clubs in the rugby premiership have followed suit but I’m sure that’s just a matter of time.

“For fans who identify with the community it makes them feel very proud, but equally it really emphasises that Harlequins are working to make the Stoop a safe place for all identities and communities but it’s also designed to spark dialogue.

“Our hope would be is that there would be friends and family seeing this type of imagery, hearing this type of content and language and having a conversation they haven’t had before. We’ve heard of fans in the stadium within groups of friends who maybe haven’t had that conversation before and they say ‘hey, actually, this is who I am’. It’s given them the opportunity to talk about it more confidently.

“Whilst we’ve made so much progress there are still barriers and challenges out there for people to express themselves authentically.”

Basketball has the power to change lives. The #GameTime campaign will aim to raise awareness of the positive impact that our sport can have on people no matter who they are or where they are from. 

Basketball England aims to engage one million people in basketball via the Commonwealth Games 2022, 3x3 and more.  

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