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An anti-racist return to sport-for-development in the wake of COVID-19

Author: MLSE

An anti-racist return to sport-for-development in the wake of COVID-19

An approach to SfD geared only at ‘bringing sport back’ the way it has been done will not provide the same benefits for all. Assessing SfD delivery and outcomes in historically underserved communities requires ongoing reflection on the lived experiences of racialized participants.

The landscape

The COVID-19 pandemic affected sport programming by restricting in-person activities. Concurrently, global outcry for racial justice for Black and racialized communities promoted calls to action to assess equitable practices in sport, including Sport for Development (SfD). 

Against this backdrop, the MLSE Foundation led research to envision changes to SfD delivery in the post-COVID landscape. MLSE Foundation is an SfD organization that specifically designs and funds sport programs to support historically marginalized or underserved communities through SfD principles.

The research examined conditions related to pandemic restrictions and their effects on ‘return to play’ factors, including interrogation of sport’s positive benefit and the conditions that may not support racialized and marginalized communities. The specific purpose was to assess sport access, engagement, and equity with an eye toward improved SfD provision.

The project

Data was collected through a survey conducted across the province of Ontario and focused on structural and interpersonal barriers and tensions of returning to participation in sport. The study sought to understand what ‘building back better’ means to youth and their parents/guardians, and to understand the impacts of racism and other forms of discrimination on youth’s ability to maximize the development outcomes of sport.

The findings

The key finding from the study revealed overwhelmingly that participants wished to return to sport as a means to manage mental and physical wellbeing. Further questions regarding ‘how sports could be built back better’ identified tensions, challenges, and gaps in existing service provision. Responses from racialized participants recounted experiences of racism and inequities in sport and the systems that delivered the activities. Respondents identified issues regarding access, blatant racism and discrimination, and exclusion from belonging. Their experiences indicated a need to address negative aspects within SfD programming and offer solutions to ‘build back’ in a more anti-racist and inclusive way for individuals and communities.

Responses from racialized youth also indicated that the cost of sport is often prohibitive. Given contemporary understandings of the intersections between racial marginalization and economic marginalization, cost-related concerns of racialized youth and caregivers should come as no surprise. Racialized youth were 13.6% more likely to list cost as a major barrier to sport access and were more likely to list transportation as crucial for their participation than white youth. Lack of access to effective transportation options also speaks to the intersection between racial and economic-based inequities.

In light of high rates of COVID-19 infection and hospitalization in racialized communities in Canada as well as general health gaps between Black and white Canadians, racialized youth and caregivers focused more on health and safety as key factors in returning to sport. Controlling for gender, immigrant status, region, and income, youth across all racialized groups were more likely than white youth to list health and safety as an important consideration for sport participation.

Questions of racism, discrimination, and exclusion indicated what experiences were important to racialized and marginalized youth. While over half of the sample stated that they had not experienced racism or discrimination in sports, there were important discrepancies based on race. Over 1 in 4 Black youth said they experienced racism or discrimination in sport, and one 16-year-old Black girl from Toronto said that:

“To me, 'bringing sport back better' means to fix the issues some sports and teams have like racism, discrimination, and judgement, and to make everyone feel needed and wanted especially in times like now, when people could be suffering.”

Black, South Asian, and Southeast Asian youth were more likely to list “[t]eammates who accept who I am” as an important way to build sports back better. BIPOC youth were also 237% more likely to list “organizations that respect my culture” as an important way to ‘build back better.’ Looking only at the full sample, “organizations that respect my culture” would seem to be a comparatively unimportant factor in how to build sports back better (listed by only 18.37% of youth). However, more than 30% of Black (37.6%), Middle Eastern (35.1%), South Asian (34.4%), and Southeast Asian (32.3%) youth listed this factor as important. 

Black and South Asian youth were more likely to list “coaches that look like me” as an important way to ‘build back better,’ and Black youth were 370% more likely to list this factor compared to white youth. While better coach and leadership representation for BIPOC youth cannot on its own solve access, equity, and inclusion issues, it is fundamental to improving BIPOC youth experiences in sport as well as performance.

For racialized participants, access to participation, feelings of inclusion, and fostering a sense of belonging in sport programs all require attention to build back better. The study further corroborated the idea that racialized participants’ enjoyment of sport experiences in general, and SfD specifically, is negatively impacted by the discrimination they experience.

It is also clear from this study that sport opportunities are often simply unavailable within racialized or marginalized communities and if sport programs are available, the experiences are often lacking and potentially alienating to racialized persons’ participation. Finally, the results indicate that youth and caregivers still generally view sport as beneficial, but believe that sports programming should focus on enjoyment, social bonds, and positive mental health effects, an essential condition of SfD success. At the same time, sport activities continue to be sites for exclusion, racism, and discrimination. An approach to SfD geared only at ‘bringing sport back’ the way it has been done will not provide the same benefits for all. Assessing SfD delivery and outcomes in historically underserved communities requires ongoing reflection on the lived experiences of racialized participants.

The takeaways

  1. Funders and practitioners of SfD programming need to evaluate the extent to which their investments are reaching youth as intended, and whether the resulting interventions are delivering quality, inclusive experiences.
  2. Organizations like MLSE Foundation need to adapt in response to systemic racism. Several examples of this are also currently being implemented. MLSE Foundation recently launched a new basketball program in collaboration with Toronto Community Housing and the University of Toronto, that includes skills development, gameplay, life skills content, and social and networking opportunities. In turn, and drawing on advanced analyses of 2016 census data, the organizations identified racially diverse, high-need, and low-opportunity neighborhoods for expansion of its existing community hockey programs. A hockey coach certification program centred on bringing more Black and Indigenous coaches into the game was launched in 2022. These programs are offered free of cost. 
  3. SfD practitioners and researchers alike must remain vigilant about racial inequalities and hierarchies within sport, and to implement SfD policies and programs that are explicitly anti-racist and critical. It is insufficient to expect the delivery of sport to lead to racial inclusion. Rather SfD stakeholders are clearly now charged with delivering sport-based development programs that recognize racial diversity and meet the needs of a range of participants.


Marika Warner is the Director of Research and Evaluation for community engagement and social impact initiatives at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). Her portfolio includes program evaluation, academic research partnerships, and technology and innovation.

Bryan Heal is the Social Impact Research Lead in the community engagement and social impact department at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) and Project Lead for the Change the Game Research Study.


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Marika Warner & Bryan Heal


Tuesday, August 2, 2022 - 19:56

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