Creating safe sporting environments - Darnelle Morgan-Johnson

Basketball England's Darnelle Morgan-Johnson's involvement in basketball is certainly significant and spans a number of avenues across London and beyond. 

Originally from Greenford, West London, the 29-year-old describes herself as a sports marketing and events professional, with a passion for creating safe spaces for people to enjoy sport and physical activity.   

She has worked for several international sports brands, including the NBA, as a content and events intern, and for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games organising committee, as an events and services operations manager.  

She has also held positions with Badu Sports, Let Me Play, West Ham United Football Club and volunteered her expertise with Britain’s biggest basketball brands: Hoopsfix, Midnight Madness and Ball Out 3x3.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she helped excluded and disenfranchised young people reengage with education through sport and, recently, was made vice-chair of the Active Lambeth Sports Board. 

As Basketball England’s PlayZone Manager Darnelle Morgan-Johnson travels up and down the country to implement the basketball element of the Football Foundation’s PlayZone’s programme, which are safe inclusive and accessible outdoor facilities that bring communities together through a range of sports.  

Darnelle gives her thoughts on her own basketball experiences, why creating safe sporting environments motivates her and is the golden thread woven through her career so far. 

My overarching motivation is to create safe environments for people who engage with basketball. Specifically, how can I make sure they feel seen and heard? 

It stems from not feeling protected as a young person during my time at a sixth-form basketball academy, which over-looked its girls’ team in favour of its boys, investing in their development and sidelining us from NBL basketball until our second year.  

It felt rubbish and there was no one to support or defend us.   

Now, at any touchpoint that I have with sports and physical activity, I think about how I can provide a safe space for everyone of any background.  

Through BE's involvement with the PlayZone programme, we can help tackle inequalities in physical activity and access to facilities.

The Programme aims to focus investment and resource into communities with the greatest need, delivering new or refurbished outdoor mini pitches designed for basketball, football and other sports and activities that will allow four priority groups (lower socio-economic groups, women and girls, disabled people and people with long term health conditions and ethnically diverse communities) to be more active.

Darnelle (centre with basketball) and her team at the Youth Sport Trust School Games

Basketball has a family feeling 

My first interaction with basketball was at secondary school and being selected to attend the London Youth Games.  

I loved the family feeling of seeing everyone representing their boroughs, schools, and clubs and connecting with each other. It solidified my desire to be involved with the sport. 

My local borough council then paid for me and a few of my teammates to do our Level 1 refereeing and table officiating certificates, and those qualifications opened doors for me to travel to various tournaments around London, and I became further embedded in the British basketball culture. 

Working at the NBA opened my eyes to the global perspective of basketball, allowing me to see the variety of employment opportunities available and where it could take me.  

However, during the pandemic, when I went back to working with vulnerable young people as a key worker and putting on fun activities for them, such as sports activities or cooking classes, I was reminded of my love for creating safe spaces for people and connecting and engaging with them to help them towards their goals. 

Through my work with Basketball England (BE), I have been able to marry my passions of basketball and safeguarding its spaces. 

This year, I have been volunteering on BE’s Aspire programme as a supporting camp director for the London region, providing reassurance to the young athletes and making sure they are having a good time. 

Aspire is their first experience of the talent pathway, so they’re excited but also nervous. Whether or not they ‘make it’, it doesn’t matter, I want them to feel positive about basketball and see that it offers them many opportunities beyond playing.   

Darnelle (left) received an Sport Industry Next Gen Leaders award in 2022. Pictured with Versus Head of Brand Mayowa Quadri (right)

Reflecting the reality 

My role with the Active Lambeth Sports Board is new and it’s my job is to make sure all our partners and stakeholders can table their opinion and raise concerns because each one represents different residents of the borough. I want every resident, no matter their background, to have an opportunity and clear pathway to engage with sport and physical activity.  

As my career develops, I am swaying towards positions of leadership/governance because I know the power they wield when it comes to decision making. 

I am an advocate of representation and people in the most senior positions of an organisation should reflect the society they serve.  

Many organisations aren’t ethnically diverse and often at work events, conferences, or round-table discussions, I am the only Black woman in a room. It can be quite isolating.  

Curating allies. Darnelle at Hoopsfix All-Star Classic 2023

Speak out against injustice

I am always going to speak out about injustice and marginalisation, but what scares me is not being able to have any real impact, because I'm standing alone. Because I am the only one who looks like me or because no one can empathise with my lived experience.  

Over the last couple of years, I have curated a group of people around me that can understand that, including allies from different ethnic groups.  

But for equity in the sport and physical activity industry to truly succeed, it is vital that all lived experiences are understood, and for that to happen you need greater diversity amongst boards, CEOs, and senior management teams.