Underage basketball permitted to resume as Government overturns farcical ban

Clubs had been told they must check vaccine certs despite under-12s not being eligible

Thursday’s announcement by Jack Chambers, the Minister of State for Sport, clearing the way for indoor juvenile sports competition, was the inevitable outcome of a farcical and ill-conceived Covid-19 regulation which prompted a rare outburst of anger and protest from the Irish basketball community. It was obvious from the beginning that the regulation was a clear case of discrimination against young people.

The basketball community in Ireland is used to being kicked around. It has always been treated like a second-class sport. But most of the time, Ireland’s sports administrators have the good sense to pretend that it is otherwise. The confused regulation issued last Thursday and the unprecedented backlash it provoked is just the latest example of the fact that in Ireland, basketball – like all indoor sports – is never a priority by those in charge of sports governance.

There are no photo opportunities, no reflected glory of Olympic medals. But whatever about expecting true State support, the prospect of actual State sabotage was too much for those dedicated to basketball in this country. For once, its voice was heard after a bizarre week of events.

On Thursday last, Sport Ireland launched an inspirational Let’s Get Back to Sport video. On the same day, Basketball Ireland received an email from Sport Ireland informing them that all players under-18 had to produce Covid vaccine certificates to play.


Because Irish children under 12 have yet to be vaccinated, all scheduled games in that age group and below were immediately cancelled. Games could go ahead in the older age grades – provided all players could prove vaccination. The catch 22 was that coaches and teachers are legally prohibited from asking a player or student to produce such a document. So immediately, the All-Ireland schools league and cups, due to start this month, were returned to limbo. Juvenile club leagues all over the country were also placed in doubt.

As of September, 90 per cent of all eligible individuals over the age of 12 had received at least one vaccine dose. Logic implies that therefore about 10 per cent of unvaccinated children between 12 and 18 attend school each day, sitting in class and socialising with the others, training with the others. But for reasons that defied all logic, the Government and, by extension, Sport Ireland, decided that the one scenario in which the vaccinated majority and unvaccinated minority cannot mix is indoor sports competition. Because basketball is the biggest indoor sport, it had the biggest number of people directly affected.

Sweeping ruling

Basketball Ireland has 21,356 club members under the age of 18. In addition, 750 schools have signed up for competition for the 2021/22 season. Most of these schools would have teams at all age grades. Not all of these players are involved with clubs. So anywhere up to 25,000 Irish juvenile players were affected by the ruling.

In a way, this sweeping ruling was not surprising. For decades, basketball has been underfunded, it commands limited airspace and column inches in Irish media and like almost all minority sports, it struggles for the oxygen of players and fundraising because of the daunting shadow of the GAA.

But it has gotten on with it. The strides the sport has made over the past decade have been impressive. A growing number of Irish teenagers are coached and skilled to a level that qualifies them for US division one scholarships. Basketball has given immigrant children an instant and recognisable pathway to Irish society: scan the composition of Ireland juvenile development squads and it is obvious that it is on its way to becoming the country’s most inclusive sport.

For many Irish people, their first involvement with basketball is when their child begins to play at school or with their local club. They are often pleasantly surprised by what they encounter. The sport excels at juvenile level, with a deep-rooted – if geographically narrow – club tradition and a terrific schools competition. The big challenge for Irish basketball is to develop a town or parish structure that makes it easier for adult players to remain involved with the game after leaving school.

During the Covid crisis, basketball was effectively shelved. The season was suspended in 2020. Gyms were locked. That was understandable. But it became clear that when the politicians began speaking about the importance of getting back to play, they were really talking about field sports.

In fact, they were really talking about the GAA, with rugby and soccer as a kind of afterthought. The return to play directives issued to Basketball Ireland were absurdly punitive – outdoor training only; no passing the ball; pods of six indoors and so on. It became an exercise in frustration and patience. But last week’s de facto ban on play for kids was the breaking point.


Curiously, the fiasco has given Irish basketball a rare moment in the spotlight. \On Wednesday, Limerick TD Willie O’Dea must have been one of the first politicians to ever mention the word “basketball” in the Dáil when he asked Tánaiste Leo Varadkar if the Government intends revisiting its indoor sports policy – or to at least clarify what scientific information “underpins the actual decision.”

Needless to say, the Tánaiste requested he be given time to “check that out.”

At least the politicians were listening.

And then on Thursday came the announcement, via Twitter, from Chambers stating that the regulations had been “amended” so that indoor competitions can again take place. The climbdown was an inevitable concession to good sense.

The best outcome would be that the entire farce helps those responsible for the development and governance of sport in Ireland to begin to recognise that basketball, almost invisibly, has earned its voice. And that it matters deeply to its many thousands of young Irish players – and future voters.