Some of Leicester’s biggest names in professional sport took to the stage at De Montfort University (DMU) yesterday to open up about the challenges and barriers they have faced in their careers.
Players from Leicester City Football Club (LCFC), Leicester Tigers and Leicester Riders joined representatives from DMU Sport for a panel discussion about overcoming adversity.
The event was jointly organised by DMU Sport and DMU for Life as part of the university’s Black History Season, and followed a thought-provoking talk with Liverpool and England legend John Barnes last week about racism in sport.
LCFC captain and Jamaican national Wes Morgan – who joined the Foxes in 2012 and made history as the club’s first player to ever lift the Premier League trophy back in 2016 – told the audience he is glad that racism in sport is being spoken about much more now than it used to be.
“When I first started it was not what it is now,” he said. “We heard racism in the stands and we would have to grin and bear it and let our feet do the talking. But now it is on social media as well so there is more awareness and we can speak up and do something about it.”
Morgan is part of the Premier League's new BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) advisory committee, which has been set up with the aim of tackling racism in sport and football.
“We are going to try and make changes for future generations to improve the game for them, so it easier for them to come through without having to go through racism in any capacity," he added.
“I think it is great to have so many different nationalities on the pitch – it illustrates how worldwide our sport is.”
Despite being at the forefront of his club’s fairy-tale Premier League win three years ago, things haven’t always run smoothly for Morgan, after he was rejected by his local team Notts County at the age of 15.
“It was disheartening,” he said. “At the time I thought my chance to play professionally had passed but then I was lucky enough to get a trial at Notts Forest.”
LCFC’s skipper was joined at DMU by teammate Youri Tielemans, a Belgian international who signed for the club from Monaco in July. Having started playing football at just four years-old, Tielemans said being on the pitch with his teammates was his “safe place”.
“Sport can bring people together – the pitch is somewhere I feel safe,” he said. “Everything went pretty fast for me. At 16 years of age I was in the first team for the best club in Belgium. The most difficult thing is to stay consistent and keep improving. The best players are the players who keep pushing themselves.”
The same sentiment was echoed by Leicester Tigers players Tatafu Polota-Nau, Jaco Taute, Thom Smith and Kyran Bungaroo, who shared the stage to discuss their experiences of overcoming adversity in rugby.
Sydney-born front-rower Polota-Nau said: “Our sport caters for all shapes and sizes. The most important thing is having the right mindset. That’s the beauty of rugby – we all offer different things but we all have to work together.”
Bungaroo, who spent three years playing in France before making his move to Welford Road earlier this year, said it doesn’t matter if you speak the same language as your teammates as long as you all have the same passion.
“You get players from all over the world in one team speaking lots of different languages but at the end of the day we are all coming together to play the same sport we love,” he said.
South Africa international centre Taute agreed that playing rugby had enabled him to meet people he might not have otherwise crossed paths with.
“You end up becoming best friends with someone you never thought you would become friends with,” he said. “The sport has allowed me to learn about other people’s ways of life.”
Taute added that the key to his success had been surrounding himself with good people: “Having the right support structure can be life-changing – just a small opportunity can change a life.”
The Tigers players also spoke about how rugby had become more accessible in recent years.
“When I was younger, where I lived it was very much all about football and rugby was not as accessible,” said Smith. “Nowadays it is available in places it never used to be and for people of all ages.”
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Also speaking at the event was basketball pro Namon Wright, who joined the Leicester Riders from Colorado Buffaloes this summer.
Having grown up in a single-parent household in Los Angeles, Wright said he did not come from money so sport was a gateway for him to get out of his neighbourhood and stay out of trouble.
“When you play a sport, you are guarded from the crime and gang culture, so it is a route a lot of my friends in the same neighbourhood took,” he said. “Basketball taught me the importance of discipline and hard work which also helped me in my education.
“Whatever your background, it’s no excuse to not work hard or try your best. No matter what race or ethnic group you come from – I don’t think it matters at all, especially with how many different sports there are. You just have to be committed to getting better every day.
“It’s about hard work and resilience.”
Posted on Friday 18th October 2019