Kieran Shannon: State failing another golden generation

All through last summer, while the indefatigable Mark Tighe kept breaking stories highlighting the scale of the incompetence and mismanagement of the FAI, there was another weekly occurrence in another sport.

Kieran Shannon: State failing another golden generation

All through last summer, while the indefatigable Mark Tighe kept breaking stories highlighting the scale of the incompetence and mismanagement of the FAI, there was another weekly occurrence in another sport.

Virtually every weekend, each of our national basketball teams, from U16 to senior, male and female, would either meet up to train or were away in Europe somewhere for a week or so, competing against the rest of the continent.

For the underage teams meeting up for an overnight camp, it was common for up to seven kids to be put up in a parent’s house, sleeping on couches and in sleeping bags — all part of the glamour and glory of playing for their country.

The senior teams were little better off. The odd night they were able to afford to stay in a hostel, another time, a night in a school with boarding accommodation.

Any food they had was either brought along or they paid for it themselves.

While waiting at an Eastern European airport for the flight back home after a gruelling 13-day championship, a parent of one of those underage players got out a pen, paper, and their iPhone, and calculated out how much money they had wired to Basketball Ireland for their child to participate in that particular two-year international programme.

It had started in Bray one November, a camp which had cost just €20, with a penultimate weekend camp 21 months later in Kerry which had cost a rather more expensive €160.

In between, there had been sessions in Dublin, Limerick, Galway, Belfast, Waterford, and Portlaoise, as well as games in Scotland, Iceland, Luxembourg, Denmark, and now this trip.

In all, there had been 36 different payments and gatherings before the main championship itself. When they added it all up, it had amounted to €5,100.

For one child, for one international programme. And that was excluding what it had cost to bring and follow their child all around the country or to travel abroad to see them stand for the anthem.

And yet they were willing to pay for it. At least there was now an international team to play for. For six years, Irish basketball didn’t have an international programme, part of its penance for going into debt back in 2009.

It is such experiences which yesterday informed Basketball Ireland to issue a statement highlighting the “double standards” in how it has been treated in contrast to how “another major sports body” was bailed out last week.

Their sense of injustice is a valid one. It is only 18 months ago that Ministers Shane Ross and Brendan Griffin penned the forewords to the National Sports Policy 2018-2017 document.

All the aspirational and politically-correct terms were in there. Ross wrote about how “increasing participation is the cornerstone of this policy” and “the benefits of sport and physical activity” for our children and the need to retain more adolescent girls in sport.

Griffin also talked about how important a role sport can play in the fight against obesity. A few pages later then they signed off on a section on ‘Vision’ and ‘Values’. Again “getting more people involved in sport as active and social participants” was the mission, but it could only be achieved by the underpinning of a “clear accountability framework”, while after that there was mention of “promoting inclusion” and “emphasising excellent ethical standards”.

In light of the FAI bailout and Basketball Ireland’s statement, it now comes across as mere bluster. While we still don’t know how at least half of the FAI’s estimated €52m debt accumulated, it has received no sanction for lacking such a “clear accountability framework” and “excellent ethical standards”.

Meanwhile, Basketball Ireland CEO Bernard O’Byrne yesterday revealed that he was never able to secure a meeting with Ross.

Even though a recent children’s sports participation and physical activity study showed that basketball is the most-played sport in PE, has the third-highest participation rate among kids in the country, and, as this column highlighted last week, has historically been probably the most inclusive sport for women in this country.

The double standards don’t end there. Basketball people don’t necessarily have a problem with soccer being bailed out; many hoopsters coach and play football too.

But in doubling the sport’s annual grant from €2.9m to €5.8m, it’s as if football is being rewarded for its national governing body’s incompetence.

Ross, naturally, would claim that there are strict stipulations that football must now follow to receive such funding, and that he has cleared out the old guard.

But 10 years ago basketball also had a clearout. Its CEO and president and board all stepped aside. Not only was the sport not presented with a set of criteria to meet to retain or increase funding, they had it cut altogether.

More so, Basketball Ireland had to pay a fine for its financial mismanagement — all of which, incidentally, was spent on basketball and not on anyone’s birthday or place of residence — and was a tiny fraction of what the FAI racked up.

While the FAI had its Aviva debt managed, Basketball Ireland, despite clearing its €1.5m debt, has still being blocked from receiving a €500,000 grant to refurbish the National Basketball Arena.

Football people have made — and evidently won — the argument that the grassroots weren’t at fault for the sins of their CEO, and therefore should avoid being sanctioned.

The basketball roots were just as innocent, yet no such grace was afforded to them. Instead they had to double registration fees to help alleviate the debt — fees which are still in place. Full-time staff numbers suddenly went from 27 to 12. And more, the national teams were pulled overnight.

Circumstances, of course, were different back then.

The whole country, not just basketball, was in the midst of a financial crisis during the winter of 2009-10, and it was over a year, not a month, out from a general election with Ross’ seat on the line.

But one fact of Irish life remains the same — in this country, our leaders are strong with the weak and weak with the strong. Banks are bailed out, Apple don’t have to pay any tax, while we have people living on the streets.

Sport isn’t wildly different. Although we have more rain than virtually anyone else in Europe, our sporting infrastructure is almost entirely outdoor-based and centred around The Big Three sports of GAA, soccer, and rugby, while tens of millions are ploughed into sports with powerful lobbies like the greyhound and horseracing industries.

While The Big Three also benefit from an income stream — from international games and All-Ireland Series matches — that the other sports don’t have, they still receive most of the annual, as well as capital grants —capital grants basketball clubs can’t get because, with the exception of three clubs, they don’t own their own facilities.

While Dublin GAA alone has over 45 full-time coaching development officers partly funded by the taxpayer, basketball — the third-highest participation sport among children in the country — has just one nationwide.

Last week’s laxation by the State of its supposed “accountability” must have felt not so much like a slap in the face as a punch to it for the likes of Gráinne Dwyer and Claire Rockall.

In 2009 they were two youngsters on a generational Irish senior women’s team, on the verge of breaking into the top 12 of Europe, properly funded by the sports grant. And then, in a flash, it was gone. For six years they had no green jersey to wear.

Yet they persevered. They still persevere.

Last year they were part of a squad that won in Estonia and Norway as part of their preparations for this summer’s European Small Nations: still balling, still scrapping, still having to pay their own way to stand for the flag.

Behind them there appears to be a wave of exceptional talent to complement and eventually replace them in the coming years. Last year the Irish U20s beat powerhouses like Croatia to qualify for this summer’s European A-level U20s.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. Players have passed on playing this summer because they just can’t afford to raise or cough up the money again.

Some of them and others are also playing for county GAA squads that don’t ask them to pay a cent for their gear.

After wiping out one golden generation of Irish basketball, the State’s lack of support is now threatening to jeopardise yet another.

Yesterday seemed to suggest that Basketball Ireland won’t allow that to happen, that they’re as mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

But as they get stronger with the strong, seeking that €300,000 that would cover all their national teams for a year, they and the rest of us can only hope that the next Government and Department of Sport is fairer and less hypocritical with the weak.

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