Bernard O’Byrne steps down from Basketball Ireland over ‘Black Dives Matter’ post

‘My comment was an off-the-cuff, extremely ill-judged attempt at humour’

Bernard O’Byrne has stepped down as Basketball Ireland chief executive. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Bernard O’Byrne has stepped down as Basketball Ireland chief executive. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Basketball Ireland and Bernard O’Byrne have reached a “joint decision” to retire the chief executive officer with immediate effect. It is the second time that O’Byrne, a lifelong football man, has been forced out of an Irish sporting organisation in a shroud of controversy.

Tuesday night’s united front, despite the 71-year-old attaching “Black Dives Matter!!!” to a BBC story about Raheem Sterling, appears to be an attempt by the governing body to shield him from lasting accusations of racism.

“Whether Bernard O’Byrne is a racist or not he has put himself in that position,” Jerome Westbrooks, the American basketballer turned Dublin teacher who came to Ireland 40 years ago, told Newstalk.

“Bernard’s comment on social media was unacceptable,” said Paul McDevitt, the chairman of Basketball Ireland before describing the former FAI ceo as “a driving force within the basketball community in Ireland in addressing bullying and negative attitudes regarding gender, sexuality and race”.

“His brief lapse in judgement,” McDevitt added, “does not reflect the person I know, nor Basketball Ireland as an organisation.”

And yet, the Facebook post damaged the organisation’s global reputation – especially when CBS News reported the story – that O’Byrne had spent 10 years attempting to restore after financial mismanagement before his appointment.

“I can firmly say that his remarks does not represent how the basketball community feels in regards of race and diversity,” tweeted Aidan Igiehon last Friday.

The 20-year-old Dubliner is a rarity in Irish sport, in that he remains in touching distance of the NBA having played NCAA Division 1 basketball for Louisville Cardinals.

“I am not writing this to promote hate towards Bernard O’Byrne, but to educate him on his diction.”

Igiehon’s diplomatic chiding of a career administrator, who held a role that demands a natural flair for language, was generous.

“My comment was an off-the-cuff, extremely ill-judged attempt at humour based on wordplay only,” said O’Byrne, “that was never intended to be racially insensitive or make light of organisations which have done so much to help raise awareness of inclusion and discrimination.”

O’Byrne, who recently returned to the coalface of junior soccer as chairman of Meath club Athboy Celtic, still lists himself on Twitter as an International Basketball Federation (Fiba) board member.

Credit card

“Bernard’s position as a Fiba board member is still to be clarified,” said a spokesman for Basketball Ireland.

O’Byrne also highlights other career achievements like five years as CEO of the FAI from 1996 to 2001. His time at the helm of Irish football is remembered in part for the failure to turn Eircom Park into a new national stadium. A rival faction inside the FAI, that included John Delaney, were in favour of the equally ill-fated ‘Bertie Bowl’ in Abbotstown.

Neither project eventually produced a stadium but during the internal squabble O’Byrne was accused of misuse of the association’s credit card, a charge he denied, while admitting to a number of clerical errors.

“For the good of soccer,” said Delaney in 2001, “I feel he should go.”

O’Byrne repaid the sums he spent on the FAI credit card, citing “inadvertent miscalculations”.

He also oversaw the promotion of Republic of Ireland players to first-class seats for international trips after Roy Keane bemoaned the blazers getting priority and was the FAI’s head of security in 1994 when English fans rioted at Lansdowne Road.

Come April 2001, the FAI and O’Byrne agreed a six-figure sum described as a “confidential voluntary retirement package”.

When Basketball Ireland was asked on Tuesday night if O’Byrne is to receive a similar severance deal, they replied that the “arrangement” was a “private matter”.

In 2017 O’Byrne’s reputation was rehabilitated enough as Basketball CEO to prompt a run against Sarah Keane for the Olympic Council of Ireland presidency, vacated after Pat Hickey was imprisoned at the Rio Olympics for his alleged role in ticket touting.

Keane prevailed with 29 of the 43 votes. O’Byrne got two votes.

“I love basketball,” he said last year, “but I started as football and will end as football.”

Depending on one’s perspective, Athboy Celtic could be viewed as the only winners here.