While much of the Ohio University community has been fixated on the men's basketball team's play in the NCAA tournament last month, OU's Center for Sports Administration took a global perspective on athletics this past weekend for its eighth annual Sports in Africa Conference.
Opening the event as the keynote speaker was renowned female Senegalese basketball player Astou Ndiaye-Diatta, who visited OU's campus to discuss the intersection of gender, community and sports. Her compelling story underscored athleticism's role in African society.
"Sports can be a vehicle for development in Africa," she stated.
During her address to an audience Friday in Walter Hall, Ndiaye-Diatta recounted her days as a 13-year-old girl playing basketball barefoot in her Western Africa nation of Senegal, the challenges she faced traveling overseas to play on scholarship at the Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma after high school, and her experience as the first Senagalese woman to be drafted into the WNBA.
"It took a lot of self-esteem and nerve for me to walk through this journey," said Ndiaye-Diatta.
She repeatedly attributed her successes to the love, encouragement and nurturing she received from her parents growing up, but most importantly to their push for her to acquire an education. This element is key for a positive future for Africa. she said.
"I didn't know the sky was the limit until I got (to the U.S.)," she said.
Ndiaye-Diatta discussed the current barriers in many African countries to receiving an education, for females in particular, including poverty, lack of infrastructure, and inadequate educational tools in schools. She said she believes it's important to expose young African children to other cultures so they too can believe in the phrase, "you can be whatever you want to be," just as she said she learned upon her arrival to the U.S.
According to a press release on Ndiaye-Diatta's visit to OU, after she was initially drafted into the WNBA by the Detroit Shock, she played for the Indiana Fever, Houston Comets and the Seattle Storm. She retired in 2008 and now works as an assistant coach at Utah State.
One of Ndiaye-Diatta's proudest accomplishments is that she earned her basketball achievements while pursuing a full family life as a wife and a mother of triplets. Ndiaye-Diatta said she believes it was her ability to balance and successfully bridge an athletic career, an education and raising a family that helped her find herself.
She concluded her speech by expressing hope that other women in Africa will one day be able to do the same.
THE FOCUS OF THE CONFERENCE this year was sports and community building in Africa and the Global South, a loose term referring to the world's developing nations. Sponsored by the Institute for the African Child and the Center for Sports Administration at OU, the conference every year aims to examine the effects of global marketing and development challenges in Africa.
"What is unique about the conference, although it is about sports in Africa, is that it looks at sports in Africa related to a different field," said Winsome Chunnu-Brayda, one of the coordinators for the conference and associate director of the Multicultural Center at OU.
Chunnu-Brayda said the conference uses sports in Africa as a framework for exploring other societal issues that are not only impacting sports, but that are impacting societies at large.
"The idea is to bring African sports first into the academic discussion and then to take a holistic approach to African sports," said Gerard Akindes, another one of the conference's coordinators and an instructor in the Department of Sports Administration at OU.
Akindes, who started the program in 2004, said he wanted to bring people in the field of sports together to foster collaborative work and to engage everyone's interest.
The weekend conference typically attracts attendees from universities across the nation and overseas, including scholars from Nigeria, France and Cameroon this year.
"[This program] is so unique," said Matthew Kirwin, an OU alum who now works for at Michigan State. "No other university has done as much research on this topic."
Kirwin presented a paper with Akindes Saturday that he said focused on how sports can be used to gauge interest in civic affairs and politics.
"I think it's fitting that our program is as broad and comprehensive as it is," said Chunnu-Brayda, referencing Akindes' upbringing in Africa and OU's status as a top school for sports administration.
The conference also included discussions on basketball and soccer in Zimbabwe and South Africa, the impact of professional athlete sponsorship on educational attainment in Western Kenya, and sports and political engagement in South Africa.
"The beauty of sports is it is a microcosm of many other aspects of society," said Akindes. "Through sports you can look at society through many different levels because so many issues and disciplines converge in sports. Sports has that unique ability to bring everyone together, and by looking through that lens you can read a very large spectrum of society. No other disciplines give that opportunity."