Sport

Hockey chairman embraces the white hot debate of inclusion in sport

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 13 August 2020 6:40

As hockey returns to the pitches of the county this month for the first time since the pandemic began there is celebration, but at the highest levels of the sport a battle of our times is afoot. 

For club members a return to training and a summer league in the sport they love is what many feel they live for, and Gloucester City Hockey has announced it is moving from Step 2 to Step 4 of the Return to Play plans. 

In short, what is one of the Gloucestershire’s biggest and most successful sports clubs, has permission to play competitively again - once everyone understands their responsibilities to return to the pitch safely. 

For its chairman, Anton de Leeuw (pictured below), it is to be celebrated, but also vitally important to him they get it right so everyone feels they can part of the re-emerging game.

And it is this issue of inclusion, white-hot at the top of the game he loves, which he is determined the wider sport should address. 

He is passionate about the sport being truly inclusive, and speaks out as a second letter in under a month lands on the table of England Hockey highlighting what it sees as issues of racism and concerns over hockey’s lack of diversity. 

In the latest missive nine clubs describe what they call the “endemic race issue” in an “elitist sport”, “dominated at the top level in particular by those lucky enough to come through the private school system”. 

It follows another letter from a group of black, Asian and minority ethnic players telling England Hockey they felt “disenfranchised and disengaged” and that the national organisation was bias against BAME players. 

Singh Pawar, Barford Tigers’ chairman, said the governing body was “out of touch with modern-day Britain”. 

“They seem to be light years behind other sports on this. I don’t know whether that is because they think it doesn’t exist, or they simply believe that it’s not their duty to do something about it. Either way, enough is enough and things need to change,” wrote Mr Pawar. 

Mr de Leeuw, a Gloucestershire-based businessman and now in his third season as chairman of Gloucester Hockey, has never hidden his vision for where the club can go, what it could achieve in sport and for the community - or what barriers it still had to overcome. 

In an argument where language includes BAME, diversity, endemic, elitist, racist, LGBTQIA – the wrong words can trip up your best intention at any moment, Mr De Leeuw’s voice has been clear clever enough to avoid any of the pitfalls and keep momentum while not avoiding the issues. 

“Diversity is being invited to a party, inclusion is being asked to dance” he said. “No matter what lens of the world or emotional position one has, there is an inclusion problem. 

“People have spoken about lack of funding, time, process, people. Inclusion is part of the DNA. Inclusion is about the culture of an organisation or a sport. 

“What is the message when you want to play hockey, when you arrive at the opportunity and something basic as to who you are and the difference you may bring, from the person that is there before is not recognised or noticed?” said Mr De Leeuw, a former international hockey player, perhaps able to see the issues for what they are and as surmountable because his South African roots make him unfettered by the shortcomings of Britishness.

Although he did also represent England's over 45s team in last year's victorious Home Nations Champions, alongside fellow club members Trevor Done and Ed Breton.

For him, the current argument about sport being open ‘to all’ is a positive. It chimes with his own view, and makes the momentum towards true inclusivity ‘infectious and alive’. 

As a sports coach, and a businessman who makes a living as a turnaround specialist working with diverse businesses, he knows all too well the challenges of culture change, but perhaps it is also why he remains positive. 

Get him onto the phycology at the heart of the issue and he is in his domain. Prescriptive and descriptive bias, he tells me, at the heart of inclusion. 

Does he really believe English Hockey can create an environment of inclusion where people are respected for their brilliance, no matter who they are and who they know, what school they attend, what generation they were or what bias is expected from them? 

“Denial and meritocracy,” he replies. “Admit there is a problem and invest in individual people on the basis of talent, effort, and performance, rather than wealth, social class, diversity etc. 

“If you don’t believe you have an unconscious bias/s it is unlikely you can create a meritocratic environment. 

“You cannot achieve to be the difference if you do not invite in... guess what... people that are different.” 

I asked Anton how Gloucester City Hockey - a club thriving at senior and junior ages and all levels - gauges itself as the club representing a city that enjoys so much diversity? 

“We are not a perfect role model club – we have not even scratched the surface achieving what we could achieve within the community, but I am sure about one thing, at Gloucester the bedrock of our culture and values are being the difference and making hockey accessible to everyone from all the community. 

“This is reflected in our values and our hash tags# belong #begin #excel. Inclusion of the community is not by magic, but we have the base to make the club, our community and our sport amazing.” 

Meanwhile, the small matter of deciding how much of the summer league can still be played and what summer camps might be hosted for children before the return to school begins. 

To find out more, visit the club’s social media, website and Facebook site.