Sports is the great equalizer. In the U.S., it doesn’t matter if you are from the East Coast, the West Coast, born in the city or country. If you can play, you can play.
It isn’t always like that elsewhere in the world. What you play often says more about you than how you play.
Breaking that cycle is difficult, especially for children growing up in a divided nation like Northern Ireland, where “you are what you play” according to Deirdre Brennan of Sport Changes Lives. In Northern Ireland, if you are Protestant, as a child you played Anglified sports like rugby, cricket and field hockey. If you were Cathlic, you played sports more associated with Irish culture, like hurling or Gaelic sports.
Basketball has been bridging that gap, particularly through the focus of the Victory Scholars recruited to play and learn through Sport Changes Lives. Because basketball is an American sport, it crosses boundaries that formerly divided the nation during “The Troubles,” a time of sectarian tensions where Catholics battled Protestants that grew through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Dividing Belfast, the violence cost about 1,500 people their lives through shootings, bombings and other acts of terror.
The impact of those problems exist today, but the Victory Scholars — American graduate students recruited to play basketball and earn their Master’s degrees at prestigious universities like Ulster University — are working to mentor disadvantaged youths around the country.
For Colgate’s Randy Butler, the program is a natural extension of her desire to help others. “It’s a dream come true,” said Butler, who began the year-long program Aug. 23. “I heard about the program from my athletic director at school during my senior year,” she said.
“Having the opportunity to continue my education, play basketball and help disadvantage youth was ideal. I fell in love with the program and it’s always a positive to work with the little guys. Seeing them smile makes my day.”
In the short time she has been in Belfast, Butler has had intensive training in management, safety protocol, coaching techniques and how to engage young people. “If I am having this much fun as a 22 year old, imagine the kids!” she gushed.
The program began in 1999 when Brennan, a professor of physical education and sport at Ulster University wanted to engage the disadvantaged youth in Belfast. “We wanted to reach out to kids without access to education and sport is a tool to engage young people,” she said.
The 23 scholars go through the same training and are then placed at other universities across Northern Ireland where they play basketball and study, but more importantly mentor and guide the disadvantaged youths found throughout the cities of NI. Butler, who graduated from Colgate in May will be studying sport and exercise psychology.
Wanting to help others is nothing new for Butler’s family. Her sister Rena, a dancer with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company in New York, had a major impact on Randy’s desire to give back.
“My sister is the biggest mentor and had a huge impact in my life. She was the only person I had seen who had a dream from the start and achieved what she wanted to be.” Butler said Rena would skip vacations or family trips to practice. “You put your mind to it and do it,” something she will instill in the kids in Belfast.
For Lafayette’s Jim Mower, joining the Sport Changes Life program was an early decision.
“I wasn’t interested in a pro career,” Mower said. “I wanted a Master’s and I really became engaged academically my sophomore year. I wanted this opportunity.” While in the program he earned his Master’s in business and now works for SAP in New York City.
“I always loved coaching kids in inner city Philadelphia in high school,” he added. “But when I went to Ireland I met people from every continent and I was interested to learn what they thought of America … I also learned to look at the world differently.”
The curiosity of the kids in the program moved Mower. They wanted to know if he knew celebrities — because every American does, right? But that curiosity helped him mentor the youths. “I saw they became curious about other communities around their own city” and that curiosity allowed for bridging the gap.
The program is “tough because you go to play basketball and get your Master’s, but working in these communities where the key is these communities are not being penetrated. You can have an impact and see that in their faces,” he added.
It’s not all seriousness though. The most surprising thing Butler has felt so far has been her great interest in the Northern Irish accent. “If I could come back with the slightest accent, I would love it!”