Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 2 April 2015

Real transformation in sport – more than an SMS

The furore that erupted after Haroon Lorgat allegedly sent a contested SMS to coach Russell Domingo is entirely missing the point. Quotas in sport are not the issue – transformation at grassroots level, when youngsters are still at school and have a future in sport, is.

The Proteas may have failed to reach the Cricket World Cup finals, but for once they were not labelled chokers – and when Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula hailed the team as heroes that had done their best on the world stage, this probably resonated with most South Africans.

We’re a sport-mad nation, and this, coupled with the fact that the Proteas actually gave us reason to believe they could be the World Champions, plus lingering questions of when cricket and rugby would stop being lily-white sports, left many bitter and angry. Our grieving process is incomplete and we have not yet reached the point of accepting that we failed to win the World Cup or that the Wallabies are top dogs once more. Rudimentary psychology tells us that we are in the anger phase of the grief process, and anger demands that there be somebody to blame. Rather than the coach, captain, the rain or De Kock, the fox in the henhouse is an alleged text message from Cricket South Africa CEO Haroon Lorgat.

According to newspapers, Lorgat sent a text to Proteas coach Russell Domingo insisting that certain quotas be met on the field, on the day that we lost our semi-final showdown against New Zealand. Lorgat has since rubbished these claims in a statement, saying:

“This is utter nonsense reporting with false allegations being made. There was no SMS, WhatsApp or BBM sent by me to the coach…” As with most deniable stories, there is an unnamed source. However, true or not, the story has re-ignited the race transformation debate in sports. What should actually inform transformation in any arena, including sports, is the situation on the ground rather than political interference from ministers or supposed text messages from administrators.

Here’s my story. My parents, friends and classmates thought I was stupid, and more than a decade later, I concur: it was downright dumb, playing lock and loose-forward at varsity. My six-foot and (then) 70-ish kilogram frame was not designed for the game of rugby, but my passion for the game, the fact that I actually enjoyed playing it and my knack for foolhardiness, had me press on every Monday night during rugby season while I was at university.

Two concussions in one year, knees that get stiff and achy on cold, Highveld winter nights and the fact that I never got to play for the Gauteng Lions or the Springboks point to the fact that for me to have had a meaningful shot at rugby, I should have developed my game in my formative teenage years. As my skeleton hardened into its lanky frame, my muscles needed to expand and stiffen into raw strength, but I, like the majority of kids across South Africa, did not have a fancy gym membership, access to expensive protein supplements, let alone a coach or a team to play for. Despite having studied and graduated from a South African “Ivy League” university, being a talk show host at South Africa’s premier radio station and writing for the esteemed Daily Maverick, I went to a simple government school, designated as an Indian school under Apartheid, and there was no significant focus on sport – so forget about rugby.

My rugby story is by no means unique, and the team I captained and coached in the final two years at university consisted of guys that needed to be taught how to scrum; that in rugby you pass the ball backward and just because you have a blistering hoof in soccer does not mean that you will get the oval ball through the uprights for two to three points. They, like many across the country, fell in love with the sport, they desperately wanted to play. Others could bench my body weight twice over, but their game, like mine, had no prospect of going beyond the Monday night inter-faculty league.

The colour of your skin does not determine your aptitude, affinity for, or ability to play a particular sport. So the crap story that blacks don’t want to play rugby or cricket and only want to play for Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates has no basis. But when you do not have a decent cricket pitch or there is nobody to teach you how to minimise injury in a contact sport, chances are you will not try out these sports.

It is about resources. The majority of the Springboks that are going to attempt to win the IRB Rugby World Cup toward the end of the year are from rugby legacy schools. From the 866 Springboks that had represented South Africa up until November 2014, 47 went to Paul Roos Gimnasium, 44 went to Grey College, 41 went to Bishops, 22 went to Paarl Gimnasium, 19 went to Paarl Boys High and the list of heavily resourced schools, with a rich rugby history, becomes innumerable. The boys that went to these schools had protein shakes for breakfast, had access to gym and had Springbok alumni to coach them. Kids in townships – please note that none of these schools are in the townships – do not have access to these resources, so how is it that we expect that quotas and number targets will solve transformation?

The New Zealanders got it right with rugby, the Spanish did it with soccer, and the Chinese will be following suit soon with soccer too. Their development plan was to standardise the sport, hit players while they are young, and ensure that any Kiwi playing rugby, or any Spaniard playing soccer, played according to one winning formula. It meant that resources were as equally distributed as possible and coaches – no matter what the level, from primary school to the professional game – all sang from the same winning hymn sheet. That is what is needed here. No matter the ability, passion or foolhardiness, a kid out of the township, without the requisite resources, will never be able to compete with a 100 kilogram behemoth from Grey College.

The same thesis applies to cricket, where even more resources and money are needed to make the sport work. The bats, padding, balls, the maintenance of pitch and outfield; all of it tells but part of what would have to be brought into our townships across the nation to make development and transformation real and meaningful.

Whether Lorgat actually sent an SMS or not is lost somewhere in the chaos of “he said, she said”. Whether Farhaan Behardien or Vernon Philander are worthy to place an embroidered Protea over their hearts should not even be questioned; they earned their place as worthy ambassadors of South Africa. Until real strides are made toward meaningful transformation, where we actually cultivate young black players that can compete against their peers from the legacy schools that dominate cricket and rugby, we will always need to place number and quota targets. That is when stories like the Lorgat SMS allegation gain traction. It is easy to believe that a sport administrator would intervene; many South Africans still believe that 21 years into democracy, race transformation in sport is merely cosmetic.

Our sports should be representative of the nation; of that there is no question – but for sports to be truly transformed, transformation should not only be debated if the cricket or rugby boys fail to bring home the big trophy. It is not dependent on what we see on TV quantitatively, but what we do in our townships qualitatively. DM

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