How the Black Canadian Coaches Association was born from George Floyd’s death

There is an equation St. FX women’s basketball Lee Anna Osei continually instills in her players. 

It reads E+R=O. Event plus response equals outcome. The idea is that if you respond to an event in the right way, the outcome will turn out favourably.

Osei, known as Coach Lee to her players and friends alike, has witnessed firsthand the lack of minority coaching hires across the Canadian sports landscape.

But that’s more of a long-standing fact than an event. And so a response never followed.

Then George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking a worldwide racial reckoning and increased calls for racial justice by the likes of Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and Canadian WNBAer Natalie Achonwa.

Those three in particular spurred Osei to a response: the formation of the Black Canadian Coaches Association (BCCA).

“I considered this a passion project to start. But then in realizing the change that it really can have, it’s not just a passion project of mine. It’s a passion project for hundreds of thousands of people,” Osei said.

The BCCA intends to increase opportunities for BIPOC coaches in Canada through its principles of networking, celebration and advocacy through allyship.

CBC Sports visual audit

In July, a CBC Sports visual audit revealed that only about 10 per cent of 400 top positions at 56 Canadian universities are held by a Black person, Indigenous person or person of colour.

“Everyone sees this as a gap that needs to be addressed — not just in Canada. We need to do better. But how we do that is probably the challenging thing right now,” Osei said.

In addition to initiatives such as the Black Female Coach Mentorship Program and The Racial Equity Project, the BCCA plans to maintain numbers on how many coaching positions in Canada are filled by minority candidates. Nothing official on that front currently exists.

Osei says the organization is also hoping to secure funding from the federal government.

Osei, 30, grew up in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. She says she first picked up a basketball “because honestly, it was either a ball or probably something not as positive.”

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One of Osei’s first coaching influences was her Grade 6 principal who co-starred as basketball coach. Now, she’s put together a 12-year coaching career herself.

“The most passionate, the most impactful, the most helpful people I’ve met have all been coaches, and that said something about the Canadian context of coaching because there’s not a lot of professional jobs out there,” Osei said.

Corey Grant wants one of those jobs. Currently the offensive co-ordinator of McMaster’s football team, Grant, first and foremost, says he wants the pandemic to end so he can return to the field. 

But the former CFLer would also like to rise the ranks and chart a path for future Black athletes and coaches.

“Representation matters because you want to see what you can be. And sometimes if we’re seeing lack of representation at different levels, especially in coaching and then head coaching, as a player and as a former player, I start to think, ‘Well, maybe I can’t be that head coach.’ As an athlete, you never want to say ‘can’t,’ said Grant.

Grant, 44, grew up in Stoney Creek, Ont., near Hamilton. He spent 11 years as a CFL receiver from 1999-2009 with the Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders, winning a pair of Grey Cups in the process.

Corey Grant says the BCCA is important so that young, prospective Black coaches can see a path to the job. (Courtesy Corey Grant)

In the years since, Grant has begun his coaching career, going from McMaster receivers coach to Tiger-Cats running backs coach and back to McMaster in his current role.

As a player, Grant said his sole focus on playing made him block out the various microaggressions he encounters every day as a Black man.

“Sometimes you shake it off because, hey, I got to focus on the game, I got to focus on practice. And now you start to realize, you know what, that’s not good for your mental health,” Grant said.

High school memory

Certain incidents can’t be blocked out though, such as one high school memory Grant says he recalls like it was yesterday.

It was after a school dance and Grant noticed a crowd packed with screaming people in the parking lot. As he walked towards the noise, some classmates stopped him: “don’t get him,’ they said, “leave him, he’s an athlete.”

“It was some guys wearing swastikas and beat up some South Asian kids and ripped off their turbans and beat them to a pulp in the parking lot. You felt helpless. You couldn’t do anything,” Grant recalled.

Grant went home and punched his garage door out of frustration. It was the only thing he could do.

As assistant director of the BCCA, Grant aims to prevent that feeling of helplessness among Black children — specifically daughter Qiawna, 12, and son Devonn, 10, who are both aspiring athletes.

“It’s doing it through advocacy, through our relationships, through celebration and networking, because sometimes there’s that thought of, ‘it’s just me going through this. Nobody else is there with me. I have to deal with this,’ and then that’s where that mental health piece comes in,” Grant said.

Grant won two Grey Cups as a CFL player with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders. (The Canadian Press)

Grant’s parents were his first coaching inspirations. Father Lynford was a steel worker and mother Hermine worked various jobs when Corey was growing up, but now runs a nursing home.

Their hard work stuck with Corey, who is the oldest of four siblings, plus two foster sisters and a foster brother.

As a player with the Tiger-Cats, Grant met Bernie Custis, the first Black professional quarterback in the modern era, and first-ever in the CFL.

Custis, who played with NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown at Syracuse, is also one of few Black head coaches in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) history.

“None of the [current football] head coaches in the OUA are of colour. So then who is having those conversations and leadership position with the players that are on their team? Who is having those conversations about George Floyd, social justice and injustices and equity?”

OUA announces task force

In August, the OUA announced the creation of a Black, biracial and Indigenous task force to emphasize diversity throughout the conference.

The desire to educate is perhaps what drew Grant to Osei and the BCCA. Having one centralized network to disperse information to coaches throughout Canada could become an invaluable tool.

Not to mention the work the BCCA is hoping to do in providing more opportunities for BIPOC coaches.

“Our goal is really simple,” Osei said. “We’re going to use the platform and leverage other organizations and individuals who believe in our mandate to find the very few people of colour in leadership positions and we want to celebrate them and we want other people to know, hey, that can be you.”

Grant watched recently as just two of seven open NFL head coaching positions went to BIPOC candidates. Eric Bienemy, the Black offensive co-ordinator of the Kansas City team going for its second straight Super Bowl, has now been passed over two years in a row.

Grant says how Bienemy handled that adversity is something he’s drawing from as he waits for his own head coaching opportunity to arise.

“I’m not satisfied with where I’m at, but I’m content right now with where I’m at,” Grant said. “I’m going to continue to move forward. And when it’s my time, I’m going to be ready to shine.”

Since May, a common reprieve in the fight for social justice is that the conversation can’t be left as a moment — it must be a movement.

Osei takes that one step further.

“It’s not a movement. It’s a lifestyle. It’s understanding that this system was built on systemic oppression. And there are so many tangible ways that can combat it.”

“We’re not pointing the blame here. We’re just stating a fact.”

With the BCCA, Osei’s response to systemic racism in Canada is well underway. And if E+R=O holds firm, a positive outcome should follow.

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