MADDOX: THE HOOPS PARADOX

kareem maddoxKareem Maddox spent a year with Newcastle Eagles observing basketball in the UK. Here’s what he found, as the sport’s value is put under scrutiny once more.

“Can you say Hoops for Health?” asks Fabulous Flournoy, player-coach for the Newcastle Eagles, the British Basketball League powerhouse.

“Hoops for Health,” answer sixty 10 and 11 year olds at Springwell Village Primary school, in Gateshead.

“I said, can you say Hoops for Health?” Flournoy asks again, with some comic flair.

“Hoops for Health!” they echo, decibels rising.

“One more time?”

“Hoops for Health!” The kids are screaming.

“Well you don’t have to scream,” whines Fab – hands outstretched, face contorted at the rise in volume. The fifth and sixth-year students laugh wildly at Flournoy’s routine.

“Now my name is Fab, and Hoops for Health is all about living a healthy lifestyle. Who knows some things you should do to live a healthy lifestyle?”

Flournoy has been delivering the same introduction to primary school students since the 2000-2001 school year. 32 primary schools in Newcastle Upon Tyne participated in that inaugural year of the Hoops for Health program. Twelve years later, the Hoops for Health program visits 120 primary schools across Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead, North and South Tyneside, Northumberland, and even traveling as far as Berwick upon Tweed to promote healthier lifestyles to children. Fab – and the other Newcastle Eagles – are the messengers. They visit two to three schools per week.

Four players arrive at each school with a bag full of basketballs and flash drive with Powerpoint presentations and quizzes. An excited murmur rises from the students still on the yard at the end of their lunch break, which is when the Eagles usually show up.

“Sometimes a bunch of students will see us as we’re walking in and start a ‘lets go eagles’ chant or start yelling questions at us,” laughs Joe Chapman, then in his fifth year with the Eagles, but now decamped for Japan. “It’s good because they’re excited we’re there and when we start they’ll actually listen to us.”

One player, typically Fab or Joe, delivers a brief opening that summarizes the goals of the Hoops for Health program, and introduces their three teammates to the (typically about) 150 fifth and six year students. From there, the children are broken up into four groups and rotated between the Eagles, each of whom delivers a different module. The standard program offers 15-minute segments consisting of smoking cessation, healthy eating, fitness and exercise and basketball.

The “no-smoking” station begins with a 15-slide PowerPoint that highlights the dangers of smoking. It includes facts such as there are 4000 chemicals found in cigarette smoke, and that 100,000 people in the UK die from smoking related illnesses each year. It then ends with a faux game show entitled “Who Wants to Breathe Cleaner Air,” modelled after “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.”

“But my game is better,” Anthony Martin, then  in his first year with the Eagles, often tells the students, “Because I’m the host.” The students try to answer questions based on the facts they just learned. A correct answer yields a Jordan brand wristband or headband as a prize. A wrong answer… actually yields the same prize.

The “Healthy Eating” station covers the basics of the standard food pyramid, and the importance of a healthy and balanced diet. The fitness station emphasizes the importance of daily exercise and an active lifestyle to maintain cardiovascular health. It culminates in a five-minute exercise circuit that gets the student’s heart racing. Everyone is then taught how to take their own pulse. The basketball station is an introduction to basketball as a sport, and a way to keep active. No prizes are given but it generates the most excitement amongst the children.

“We would like them to get all of the answers correct, but I don’t think that’s the biggest thing,” says Damon Huffman, the Eagles point guard of last season. “It’s more important that we’re there, providing the kids with positive role models and the overall message.”

“We have our rotation pretty much set,” says Chapman. “Each guy gets comfortable doing one of the stations and sticks with it. They have their own ways of making it fun and keeping the kids engaged.”

Hoops for Health is run by the Eagles Community Foundation, led by General Manager and part-owner of the Eagles, Samantha Blake.

“Engaging children under twelve is the best age to introduce them to sport,” said Blake. “Not just basketball, but an active and healthy lifestyle.” A sentiment that is shared by the schools that participate in the Hoops for Health programme.

“It captures the children’s imaginations,” says Maureen Robinson, Physical Education coordinator at Springwell Primary School in Gateshead. This is Springwell’s first year participating in the programme, who were introduced to Hoops for Health by a parent with children at the school.

“You can see what they were like when the eagles came in. They were all sort of amazed to see them, so it sort of hooks them into things – it hooks them into sport. When they see someone actually participating in sport at a high level, actually telling them ‘this is what they need to do,’ then they do take a little bit more notice.

The Beginning

 According to Paul Blake, the Hoops for Health programme came into existence for two reasons. Blake is the owner of the Newcastle Eagles and chairman of the Eagles Community Foundation.

In 2000, a UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport 10-year strategy report chanced across Blake’s desk, revealing that basketball was the second most requested sport by children under the age of 15, behind only football in popularity. However, Newcastle Council only levied 2,000 pounds towards basketball development at the time.

“The council had funded development offices for every sport other than basketball, so we said ‘we’ll do it,'” recalls Blake. “And it also happened to be a great direct marketing opportunity for the Eagles and basketball in general.”

At the time in Newcastle, there were the Newcastle Eagles professional team, a women’s national team competing in the second division, and a men’s league at Tyne Metropolitan College. However, nothing existed for the under 15 years of age demographic.

The initial funding for the program came from the Newcastle Council. It was enough to put Hoops for Health in 32 of the 57 primary schools in Newcastle. From there, the Eagles purchased 10 hours per week of court time at Benfield Centre for Sport and Excellence, and used Hoops for Health to promote the under 12 and under 14 basketball lessons.

Fab Flournoy at heart of programme

Fab Flournoy at heart of programme

“We had no idea if the club site would work, but we took on our first coach and educated him, and within 18 months we had 100 members,” recalls Sam Blake. “Today we have 17 clubs that are all promoted by Hoops for Health.” The total membership is approximately 1,500 pupils. While Hoops for Health was clearly effective as a basketball promotion, the Eagles had a more important reason for the program.

“[In 2000] There were increasing issues with regards to levels of obesity, and we wanted to link out of sport and tap into the wider health discussion,” says Paul Blake. “And we wanted to find a program that would work for all partners and that included the Eagles players as role models.”

The increased attention to rising rates of obesity are visible, even today. According to the most recent “Childhood Obesity Update,” 25 per cent of children surveyed (586 individuals) in year six fall into the “very overweight” category, up from 22 per cent in 2008/2009.

“In observing the last four years of data for year 6 across the city there is a worrying upward trend in the numbers of very overweight children aged 10/11 years old,” the report, authored by public health consultant Dr. Dawn Scott, reads.

In 2009, this trend finally caught the eyes of the UK’s Department of Health. The “Change4Life” program began that year, encouraging families to “eat well, move more, live longer.” The country’s first public health campaign to fight against the rising rates of obesity came nine years after Hoops for Health’s conception.

The Newcastle Eagles’ goal to be a community-oriented organisation led to this apparent foresight. And in 2007, the Eagles Community Foundation made the Hoops for Health licence available to the other teams in the BBL. Many of England’s twelve professional teams now run a program based on the Eagle’s original idea.

“We were never interested in only being a professional team, that’s not what we want to do. It is nice winning trophies but that’s not as important as the work we do in the community,” says Sam Blake. “Could the club survive without the [Eagles Community] Foundation, yes. But do we want it to, not necessarily.”

Surviving, however, has not being easy for the healthy lifestyle program in recent years. Governmental and corporate sponsorship has slowly dwindled to nothing since 2000. Part of this hardship comes as a result of the widespread economic difficulties faced by all, but some comes from difficulty in quantifying the impact of the program.

“You can’t give statistics on how you’ve influenced a child’s attitude ten years down the road,” explains Sam. “The only thing you can look at is how our club sites have grown, and if one of our primary goals is to keep kids active then you can extrapolate from there.”

Troubles

The funding for Hoops for Health has come from different places each year. With the economic downturn, city councils have tightened on available funds, and corporate sponsors have slowly disappeared.

“There is a lot of good will to help the programme continue, a lot of people see what we are able to deliver outside of national curriculum that will benefit children in the long term,” says Sam Blake. “But right now times are tough, it’s hard to make our case when people are being made redundant and facilities are being shut.”

Since these initial sources of income have disappeared, the Eagles Community Foundation had to reach out to someone else. While Hoops for Health was previously offered to schools free of charge, the Eagles were forced to charge schools for their services this year. And the reaction surprised the Eagles Community Foundation.

Instead of delivering the program to fewer schools, as anticipated, the players have had their busiest year to date. 120 primary and high schools paid the 300 pounds price tag to continue receiving the Hoops for Health programme.

“It was really heart-warming to see how many schools bought in and paid to keep us coming back,” says Sam Blake.

But considering that each player is paid an average of 135 pounds per Hoops for Health session – about three hours of work – the 300 pound per school figure seems like a great deal.

“It costs about 1,500 pounds total to put each school through Hoops for Health from start to finish,” says Paul Blake.

This is because the programme consists of five stages. The first stage is the players’ “roadshow” at the primary school. They are also invited to a free session at their nearest basketball club and given a ticket to the next Eagles home game at Northumbria University’s Sport Central.

Each school is then given four hours of free coaching, delivered by Eagles Community Foundation accredited coaches. From there, each school will enter teams in regional tournaments at a local facility, which is stage three.

Stage four is the tournament finals. The semi-finals are held on the Sport Central court before the Eagles play an official BBL match. The finals then occur at halftime of the game in front of the home crowd, with an average of 2,100 spectators. The fifth and final stage is a national Hoops for Health tournament in which all the winners compete.

But despite successes across the country, funding issues continue to plague the program. The same issues that plague basketball as a sport in the UK, many of which have roots at the governmental level.

“No explanation is given, its just ‘yes, you’re right.’ The key decision makers have a cultural bias against basketball,” says Paul Blake. “It is anti-progressive, we institutionally support the sports we invented. In our school system, sport teachers will prioritize sports that they played.”

 

Basketball in the UK

According to the most recent Active People Survey – conducted by Sport England and released quarterly – almost 153,000 people participate in basketball at least once a week (at a moderate intensity). Half of those participants were between 16 and 19 years of age. The survey also showed that basketball is the 2nd most popular team sport in England amongst 11-15 year olds, and the 5th most popular spanning all age groups.

“Unfortunately, there is no link between sport participation rates and the Sport England funding,” laments Paul Blake. “It makes no sense.”

He may have a point. Despite these statistics, UK Sport reduced funding for basketball development in the latest funding cycle (2013-2017). From 2009-2013, Sport England dedicated 8.2 million pounds to basketball, but reduced that to zero for the current cycle. A parliamentary debate finally led to a reassignment, and now basketball is guaranteed at least 3.6 million pounds. This allotment places basketball 23rd on the list of 46 sports that Sport England funds.

“The traditional majority sports in the UK have been working politically for decades and have built an ability to commercialise themselves with government support,” explains Blake. “That’s why I felt there was a need for political support for basketball and spoke to (All Party chair) Sharon Hodgson about building governmental support for the sport.”

In the parliamentary debate that led to UK Sport reconsidering the basketball funding decision, MP Stephen Mosley tried to call attention to the added value that basketball presents – and its place as the most popular team sport among lower socio-economic groups.

And the Hoops for Health programme was brought up in defence of basketball by MP Catherine McKinnel, from Newcastle.

“Does [MP Stephen Mosley] agree that not only do 16 to 25-year-olds—and beyond—benefit from investment in this sport, but children do as well, through the hoops for health programme?” she asked. “That is having a massive impact on school children and getting them interested in basketball from a young age, as well as teaching them about healthy lifestyles, not smoking and the other health benefits of sport.”

Possibly more telling than the actual debate, however, may have been the mass exodus of MP’s when the topic was announced. Only twelve stayed for the discussion. Most were from cities that harbour British Basketball League professional teams.

Although basketball in the UK has arguably suffered more ups and downs than any other sport, its champions have learned to adapt and survive.

“The sport is delivered primarily via a committed volunteer base and a lot of entrepreneurial spirit,” Blake concludes. “The NGB needs more support and is in the process of defining a new direction – that’s what I believe is the case today and this is the line I find myself saying on a daily basis.”

That spirit may have to carry basketball until its value is realised by key decision makers.

Kareem Maddox originally wrote this analysis in 2013. He is currently on a break from basketball and working in the media in Los Angeles.

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