Sheffield Sharks’ Atiba Lyons keen for BAME conversation to stay top of agenda

Atiba Lyons, is entering his 13th season as head coach of the Sheffield Sharks, but is one of very few BAME head coaches in Yorkshire professional sport.Atiba Lyons, is entering his 13th season as head coach of the Sheffield Sharks, but is one of very few BAME head coaches in Yorkshire professional sport.
Atiba Lyons, is entering his 13th season as head coach of the Sheffield Sharks, but is one of very few BAME head coaches in Yorkshire professional sport.
One of the few black coaches in professional sport here in Yorkshire has expressed his encouragement at the progress made by the Black Lives Matter movement – and hopes his sport can play a part in continuing the conversation.

Atiba Lyons of basketball’s Sheffield Sharks is one of just two BAME head coaches presently operating in Yorkshire sport, alongside Darren Moore at Doncaster Rovers.

Together, they and society have seen a sustained movement towards racial equality following the death of black man George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota, seven weeks ago.

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Since then, Black Lives Matter has become a slogan for racial equality across the world with marches and rallies taking place in many cities. Sport has taken up the message, with first footballers wearing shirts with the logo on and taking a knee on the resumption of the Premier League on June 17.

The majority of Formula 1 drivers, at the urging of world champion Lewis Hamilton, followed suit at their season-opener on July 5, and England’s cricketers also took a knee in solidarity ahead of their first Test with the West Indies a few days later.

The British Basketball League season, in which the Sharks play, will not resume until October at the earliest due to the gradual return to normal service following the coronavirus pandemic.

But once it does, Lyons – who is entering his 13th season as head coach – is confident his sport will stand ready to show its support.

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“It’s been a great start,” said Lyons. “When you see the make-up of the world, different causes, movements, it’s overdue for Black Lives Matter to have this moment to speak out and highlight issues that affect the BAME people.

“The message can sometimes get diluted and confused and I just hope we can keep that conversation going so it doesn’t become a flash in the pan situation.

“It’s not just about outwardly and openly racist, it’s about the subtlety of things, and the difficulties the people of colour face in the world that needs addressing. Hopefully, this highlights that and it gets better for the next generation.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time, because the world stopped. Some of the things that distracted us from, not just black lives matter, but different issues that were glossed over because you’re able to go to the shops, able to go see a movie, able to go to the pub, able to watch a football match. All that stopped, and we were able to look at every government with the lights on and the make-up off, so to speak, and see their true colours.

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“Now it’s been exposed, people are starting to see the spark being lit. There’s nothing negative about it, even though it has been spun negatively sometimes. But just take it as it is meant to be – it’s about equality and stopping racism and discrimination.

“I don’t know why anyone with a pure heart would not want to see the right thing done. I think it’s got the legs to keep going. The younger generation are keeping it alive with social media. It’s incredible. I’ve really enjoyed watching it unfold and being able to witness that.”

Even with the season three months away, Lyons’s club have sought to keep the issue at the top of the agenda. In the coming days they will release official Sharks merchandise bearing the hashtag Black Lives Matter. Once the season does begin, would he encourage or discourage his players from taking a knee in support?

“You can do whatever you want. I’m not going to force anyone to do anything,” he said. “I have my beliefs and I wouldn’t feel anything negative towards people if they didn’t agree.”

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Basketball is a sport with a larger share of black players than most. And that translates to a higher percentage of black coaches. Indeed, Lyons is one of four employed by the 11 clubs that make up the professional BBL.

But other sports lag behind, football in particular, where the ratio of black managers operating at the 92 professional clubs is below 10 per cent.

“There definitely should be more representation at elite level when you look at the numbers,” observed Lyons, who arrived as a player in Sheffield 15 years ago from North America, via spells in Finland and France.

“If you follow the trend from grass roots, if there are 40-50 per cent playing grassroots sport from that background then it should be represented as such at management level.”

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However, Lyons stops short of suggesting sports in Britain should adopt the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which mandates that all teams should interview one BAME candidate for head coaching roles.

“I don’t think you would need to go to those lengths, and it’s a shame that it would have to come to that,” said Lyons. “If they are the best for the job they should have the opportunity to coachat the highest level. I’m lucky enough to be able to do it. I enjoy my position and I think it’s a shame if there’s not more people that represent that community within the job.

“Chances are there’s going to be a person of colour that is a candidate and is good enough to do the job. If one person getting interviewed starts that trend and helps it get normalised then hopefully it will open it up to interviewing the best candidates. If it just stops there then it’s not a great rule, and my fear is it would just stop there (at the one).

“A sport like American football, 90 per cent African American and there’s only two or three head coaches. That’s what needs to be highlighted and chiselled away at until it becomes more open to everybody and more inclusive.”