Sports Diplomacy: Lessons for the Basketball Court and Life



Wesley Jeffers is a public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in the Republic of Congo.


Teamwork. Determination. Hard work. These are some of the many qualities that sports teach us. These values and skills not only help us to win a match, but also to succeed in life. Luckily for us, these are qualities that are not defined by a common language, but rather by a common attitude. The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’s SportsUnited program understands this belief and works extremely hard to teach young people around the world how to translate these skills into work ethic and academic achievement. SportsUnited is an international sports programming initiative designed to help start a dialogue at the grassroots level with young people.

For the first time in its history, U.S. Embassy Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo took part in the SportsUnited Sports Envoy program. Former NBA player Bo Outlaw, former WNBA player Edna Campbell, and NBA representative Chris Clunie spent August 25-31 teaching over 250 Congolese youth basketball skills, as well as the importance of working together, open communication, and building a sense of self and community-awareness.

Over the past several years, the Republic of Congo has battled with its own identity issues as the result of a painful civil war and problems with food security, limited electricity, poverty, and low levels of political engagement. These obstacles have left much of the youth of Congo somewhat apathetic to their surroundings.

Bo, Edna, and Chris communicated their passion for basketball and teamwork in the course of multiple sports clinics using their actions and passion for basketball. They worked closely with each young person, gave them high-fives, and would not allow anyone to give up or even put forth a fifty percent effort.

When players wouldn’t ask each other for the ball, the Sports Envoys showed them through example how the ball will never end up with your teammate in the right place, unless you talk to each other.

When players stopped running because they were too tired, the Sports Envoys ran beside them and encouraged them to push themselves for the team.

When players let balls roll away, the Sports Envoys explained that it was the players’ responsibility to look after that ball, as if it were a treasure.

By the end of each one of our five clinics, the players were working harder than they had ever worked at a sport in their lives. No matter how they felt when they began the clinic, the players always ended with smiles and were eager to practice as much English as they could with the Sports Envoys. They eagerly asked for pictures and sought out tips for future practices. On several occasions, players approached me and my staff to tell us that no coach had ever spent as much time with them or been so concerned about their progress. It was truly incredible to see a transformation in every single young person that participated in the clinics. By the end of the week, almost all of the participants returned to watch the clinics wind down and offer encouragement and constructive feedback to the players on the court.

Of course, the Sports Envoy program did not just benefit the youth of the Congo. Bo, Edna, and Chris were able to reach an even greater number of Congolese through speaking at the U.S. Embassy’s English Language Club, painting a local orphanage, and distributing water to an area that has not had access to clean drinking water since 1984. The changes were most noticeable in Bo and Edna — who had never been to Africa. They stepped off the plane to learn that, yes, there are two Congos. By the end of the week, they were able to articulate issues important to the country that I, as a newly minted public affairs officer, was still learning.

What happened in Brazzaville was much more than a basketball camp or even an international exchange — it was the melding of two cultures, where both learn from each other while realizing that we are all, at our core, the same. This is public diplomacy at its finest.


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