The Savannah Pride club in western Sydney gives an opportunity to basketball-loving young Sudanese boys. (Supplied: Adam McKay)
You become ever more sceptical about sport’s relentless cause merchants.
You reflexively gag at the thought of another themed round where a major sports organisation extols the virtues of Indigenous or women’s rights in order to justify lavish government funding or sponsorship.
You cringe at the sight of a young footballer preaching down at you from a giant screen about LGBTI rights when he plays in a league where no male player has yet felt safe coming out.
Then you find a place that is not merely selling good causes but making a significant difference. Instantly, your faith in sport’s ability to help build relationships and even entire communities is restored.
This does not happen at a big stadium before a vast audience but at the local basketball court where your kid and his friends play.
The heartening sight is dozens of Australian-African children who were initially enticed from a nearby housing commission flats to join the club.
Once we might have said these kids were being helped and even “saved” by those who entered the Australian-African community, earned their trust and quite literally delivered them to the court.
The ABC’s Australian Story last year told the tale of Mayor Chagai, a South Sudanese refugee who came to Australian aged 19 and has built the Savannah Pride Basketball Club in western Sydney.
South Sudanese refugee Mayor Chagai is now a community leader who coaches Savannah Pride (Supplied)
Chagai convinced kids who once gathered for “fight nights” to instead play ball and, subsequently, a strong and vibrant club has grown — albeit one still struggling for funding.
He is just one of many community leaders from all walks of life, and in many different sports, with similar stories to tell.
People who have worked tirelessly to give Australian-African kids a sporting chance.
Similar tales of redemption are still occurring. But the cycle turns quickly.
New players becoming clubs’ lifeblood
At our club in inner-suburban Melbourne, the Australian-African players are, with their energy, enthusiasm, personality and the increasing involvement of their families, now far more than a worthy cause.
They are part of the club’s lifeblood. Just as those from other immigrant communities drawn into sport, the arts, education and every other endeavour help form the fabric of society.
The assumption is that professional sports are eager to recruit African-Australian kids to increase the stock of “first choice” athletes in a very competitive market. At the highest level this is true.
Players like the Sydney Swans’ Aliir Aliir are role models for young kids (AAP Image: Dean Lewins)
The emergence of stars and role models such as NBA draftee Thon Maker and Sydney Swans defender Aliir Aliir is obviously a potent force in encouraging children to play. There are more such stars in the making.
But at the grassroots where thousands of kids will participate without reaching the top, an even greater benefit comes from what community sport does best — bringing people together to pursue a common goal.
Kids playing, parents arguing about who was rostered to score or collect the subs. Smashing down barriers and forming firm friendships.
Gangs debate results in battle lines drawn
Yet the task of those of who have worked hardest to use sport as a means of integrating Australian-African children into our clubs and communities has been made more difficult.
The increasingly sensational stories of “African gangs” in Melbourne have obvious social and political overtones.
Battle lines have been drawn between those who claim these “gangs” present a significant danger to public safety and those who believe the Victorian state opposition is whipping up an atmosphere of fear and mistrust in the hope of being elected on a law and order agenda.
Australian-African leaders do not deny there is some problem youth crime. But they are pleading with governments and the police to take a bipartisan approach and to work with them.
They want to ensure any rogue element is correctly identified so that the entire community is not vilified and victimised.
So when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton fanned the flames this week by claiming Melburnians were afraid to go out to restaurants at night for fear of being attacked by “African gangs”, he risked compromising the efforts of those working productively and harmoniously with Australian-African youth.
Community faces more challenges from angry rhetoric
Again, this is not to dismiss the reality that this community faces some challenges. It is a plea for those charged with finding solutions to remember the untold damage they can do with their inflammatory rhetoric.
Confronted by politically motivated stereotyping, how many people will look at one of the exemplary kids at our club and cross to the other side of the street out of ill-founded fear?
Will some parents and even coaches now harbour misgivings about African-Australian kids entering clubs?
How long before some of kids, confronted and isolated by such prejudice, start to conform to those unfounded stereotypes?
These are the issues that those doing the most to build strong communities through sport and other means must face. The mess they will have to clean up when the politicians have moved on to the next issue.
In modern times the sports pages are full of problems. Performance enhancing drugs, appalling off-field behaviour and even trivialities such as drop-in cricket pitches mean our games can sometimes bring more anguish than joy.
In that context, watching a local basketball club embrace and be enhanced by a new section of the community has been enriching; a demonstration of the genuine, commercial-free power of sport.
Surely this is something for the next politician trying to score cheap points from the parliamentary free throw line to consider.