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Basketball and Citizenship

Basketball Success Builds Good Citizens

Case study of Philadelphia program by UCR researcher Scott Brooks offers insights into creating successful youth development programs.

(May 6, 2009)

Scott Brooks

Scott Brooks

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Youth development programs are critical to addressing the needs of children and teens who will become the next generation of landowners, workers, parents and voters in communities across the country. But community leaders need to plan these programs with the same care they apply to building homes and neighborhood amenities if these activities are to be successful, according to a University of California, Riverside researcher.

In a study that appears today in Policy Matters, a quarterly journal published by UC Riverside, Scott Brooks, assistant professor of sociology at UCR, concludes that when cities invest in youth development programs, those programs “can have a positive effect on the lives of children and adults, and can help spur and shape its future growth and identity.”

The article is available at

Sports are the centerpiece of federal, state and local efforts in poor, inner-city poor communities to mitigate school truancy and dropouts, juvenile violence, delinquency, and gang participation. Sports participation is a socializing institution, and involvement leads to greater self-esteem, school engagement, and higher educational aspirations, Brooks says.

The success of sport-based social interventions depends on the strength of nonsport components, Brooks says, such as: the development and use of local resources to nurture cultural and social niches, the creation of synergies and status associated with the activity, and the engagement of residents from different generations.

“Customized youth development programs can indeed have noticeable impacts if they involve more than simply the primary activity,” he says.

Brooks coached youth basketball in Philadelphia for nearly a decade and has been an assistant basketball coach at a public high school in Riverside for two years. His report, “Making Basketball Work: Ensuring Success in Youth Development Programs,” is a case study of youth basketball in Philadelphia, where the sport is played from cradle to grave, and is taken seriously and played rigorously at all skill levels and arenas of competition.

“Philadelphia is a basketball city because of its storied past, its multiple and interconnected levels of basketball, and its socioeconomic structure and networks,” Brooks writes. “And these factors work together to create a local basketball world and culture, and influence how some people use the city’s resources and carve a social identity as basketball players.”

Programs like Midnight Basketball are an important part of legislative crime packages at the state and local level, he says. “The premise is that sport, and basketball in particular, helps to integrate youth, particularly young black males, in positive ways. This is problematic and misses the larger structural issues and conditions facing the inner-city poor.”

Most programs simply roll out balls and let kids play, he says. However, research shows that activities and organizations that influence behavior, identities and lives need some central components of institutionalization to be successful.

Brooks cites as an example a Philadelphia league that has the goal of making youths successful basketball players, on and off the court. Games are structured, recorded and regulated like college and professional basketball, and typically draw audiences of peers, community residents, and high school and college basketball coaches.

The league takes pride in helping young men to have more opportunities for success and to become good citizens, Brooks says. “Men in the league are seen as role models, and they often act as father figures.” Those men enforce broader social conventions regarding decorum and respect for authority and teamwork, and help combat the notion of black men as absent fathers and father figures, he says.

Although other cities may not share similar histories of cradle-to-grave basketball leagues that grow collegiate or NBA champions, every community has some sporting or other activity that can involve residents at different levels and in varied roles to build successful youth development programs, Brooks says.

The Philadelphia experience can be useful in modeling best practices for such programs, he says, such as:

- Resource and capital assessment. Determine what the community does well or could do well, and adopt a multifaceted approach that embraces girls and boys in sports and nonsports activities.
- Promote programs and participants, both locally and nationally. Such programs could increase tourism and employment, as well as attract new, productive citizens.
- Create and take advantage of synergies between cities and programs whenever possible. Visibility increases interest in an organization or institution. The need for job training to support youth development programs can help spur the development of courses and programs in local colleges and high schools.
- Support the right programs with resources. Successful programs must be rewarded. Be sure to address the needs of girls and women, who tend to participate in sports at lower rates. Programs that encourage their participation are necessary for women’s health, fitness, and social integration and empowerment.

Brooks is the author of "Black Men Can't Shoot" (University of Chicago Press, 2009).



The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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