In the 2000s, “Those who bet on women’s basketball were few and far between.” The PB18 made a commitment to girls. Their goal: “to showcase talent and more importantly, to promote sports among girls from working-class neighborhoods like the 18th and 19th districts,” explains Agnès Sylvestre, former Head and Coach for the club. Two phys ed Teachers from Gérard Philippe Middle School, in the 18th district, launched the sports-study program for girls 11 to 16. Workshops introducing the game of basketball were organized in the schools in northeast Paris, in order to recruit girls. Most of these are REP schools (REP is a program that channels additional resources to schools in disadvantaged areas and encourages the development of new teaching projects). “Each year, we look at up to 80 classes in order to identify 20 girls with potential, who are either tall or demonstrate above-average athletic ability” adds Agnès Sylvestre.Twenty years later, the PB18 is a four-time French champion. It has even become the number one training club for women’s basketball, with 80 members. Coach Laurent Goodrige points out a similarity between all of them: “All of the girls live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, some have lives that we don’t always understand and at first, basketball is not a priority to the families.” Through the years, according to the players’ parents, the club has become “a family, a school of hard knocks, a community.” The reason for this is, that from the beginning, “the PB18 was created as an organization designed to help the people in the community, not as a club with athletic goals,” explains Laurent Goodrige, the under 15 Coach.
“EITHER YOU LIE AROUND OR, YOU’RE BUILT LIKE A MAN.”
Agnès Sylvestre doesn’t beat around the bush. Before enrolling a girl in the program, she warns her parents: “Your daughter is going to leave her friends, change middle schools, practices will be hard and she’ll come home crying.” Awa, 14, nods her head “we no longer have time to just lie around and do anything else, basketball has become our life.” The PB18 requires “efforts on the part of its players both on the court and at school,” more so than other Paris clubs, claim the Coaches. But in return, the Educators follow the kids’ education and help them with their homework several times a week. “Both go hand in hand at our club,” explains Laurent Goodrige, who loses his temper one day before practice. One of the players lacks involvement, not on the court, but with her homework. The under 15 coach claims that he can “leave the best player on the bench all week if she is not working hard in school.” The club may seem unusually tough, but that’s because girls are not as used to high intensity sports as boys. It starts on the street, where girls “don’t practice on neighborhood playgrounds and don’t play any kind of sports if they don’t belong to a club. The result being that a lot of them are pudgy,” Agnès Sylvestre admits. Unlike men, “most 13 to 14 year old girls don’t think to build up their muscle strength if they are not encouraged to do so. Their priorities are family, the home and the temptation to have children way too young,” at least for those who come from non-athletic families, the former club Head club explains.Yves Raibaud, a specialist in gender geography**, confirms this statement. According to Raibaud, “public spaces in neighborhoods are reserved for boys, it’s a place where you learn what it is to be masculine along with all the sexist and homophobic stereotypes.” Sports fields, for example, many of which were built in the 90’s, “are exclusively used by men, causing women to resort to indoor activities and being in the home,” says the Scientist. Sociologist Carine Guérandel has also studied sports in working-class areas***. She qualifies sports as an object of male domination, whose values have largely excluded girls. Carine Guérandel writes: “Gender-based violence, which has been trivialized on these playing fields, has relegated girls to activities such as dancing and gymnastics, which carry less value in society.” Not being in public spaces does influence the practice of a sport and Yves Raibaud explains that once girls are enrolled in clubs, their sociological analysis looks different. Statistics show that the number of girls from working-class neighborhoods who play on sports teams is increasing, thanks to the feminization of society and the gender policies put in place in Paris in the last decade. In France, girls now make up 38% of the basketball landscape. After volleyball, it’s the second most popular sport for women (versus 5% of football).
Binta and Seeya, our two young players show an awkward smile: “these stereotypes are sort of true”, concedes the INSEP star. Her friend adds: “practicing an outdoor sport is not part of our culture and unlike the boys, we have to help our parents.” According to Binta, girls are often faced with a binary choice: “If you lie around in front of the TV, you’re fat and you eat junk food, and if you play a sport, you’re built like a man.” The PB18 coaches have also noticed that adolescent girls’ bodies can also be a hindrance to the game. Nike launched the week-long “Paris Girls Squad” event in order to introduce neighborhood girls to sports. The brand gave away free equipment to girls from the 18th district because they had noticed that “most of the neighborhood teens didn’t have shoes, clothes or sports bras to play a sport,” Agnès Sylvestre explains. In addition to the financial issue, the neighborhood’s sociological makeup demonstrates that parents often want to take their daughters out of sports activities when they go into sixth grade, so they can focus on their schoolwork. This is the age where “there’s a pressure on girls’ bodies, they become women and curvy,” according to Yves Raibaud. Young women are then automatically “protected by their parents and their peers, boys from the neighborhoods” according to the Geographer.For the basketball players and their parents, PB18 is a haven in the neighborhood. The girls are in good hands and the families trust in the club’s Coaches and Educators’ ability to put the young athletes on the right path of basketball and studies. Some of the girls rely on basketball to change their lives, as it did for some of the club’s former stars such as Olivia Époupa, Kadidia Minte, Awa Sissoko and Diandra Tchatchouang.
«YOU GOTTA BECOME SOMEBODY. »
French international star Olivia Époupa, is a hero to the BP18 girls. “She’s from here and she’s black and she plays for the French national team,” the young players full of admiration said in a club video that was posted on the internet. Olivia Époupa, who is from the 18th district and a from family that is very involved in basketball, learned the ropes with PB18. She then attended the INSEP and joined the French national team in 2015.
Every time she goes back to the club, the “Bleues” (French national team) point guard acts like a big sister and encourages the young Parisian players. “I tell them they have to practice a lot, to never give up and to believe in their dreams.” Problem is, lots of teenage girls “don’t dream anymore, they don’t know what they want be when they grow up, a lawyer, a nurse or a basketball player,” Agnès Sylvestre says with disappointment. When they start the program, players have 4 years to reach the highest level, to get into the INSEP or a training center when they reach high school, and to eventually play in the pros. And why not, maybe even get a spot on the French national team like Olivia Époupa did.
On the sidelines, Laurent Goodrige remembers the French team’s point guard. “At first, Olivia’s technical skills were not above average, but she was physically and mentally strong, she hated to lose.” After coaching men up to the Pro B level, Goodrige noted a significant difference with girls: “female players don’t have a winning mentality, the kind of drive that boys have at 15. It’s a societal issue… » What could it stem from? The Coach is skeptical, even if there is real potential in working-class neighborhoods where “for many of these girls, their physical build could help them establish themselves and play for the WNBA in the United States.”America, which is pretty much every female player’s dream, is now within reach for Binta, the INSEP star. After she graduates high school in June, she is headed for a professional career: “basketball is my life, I want to go as far as possible, but I still have trouble picturing it.” Geographer Yves Raibaud is not surprised by this, since he considers professional sports a male privilege. Careers are designed for men, not for women. “Professional sports is the ultimate place of male domination, both in results and in money,” he explains. In France, on average, female basketball players are paid a third of what men make. Their monthly salaries only go up to 3100 euros, versus 9600 euros for men.Beyond the financial aspect, “girls lack ambition because they have too few role models that are like them,” according to Agnès Sylvestre. By this she means black and from working-class neighborhoods. Most young women who were asked if they watched basketball on television said no. Their heroes are LeBron James, not Céline Dumerc. The girls complain that “the women’s French national team games are not on shown on free cable TV”. Furthermore, Agnès Sylvestre believes that the French Basketball Federation could showcase players like Olivia Époupa more “if we want to recruit girls in the neighborhoods, we need to highlight players that look like them.” The PB18 girls will probably have a hard time identifying with Marine Johannès, the French team point guard from Normandy.So is it not it depressing for these female basketball players to work so hard in this context? Not at all, according to the club members. Madoussou and Awa explain “you’ve gotta try to become somebody, we don’t have a choice.” Olivia Époupa is banking on mentalities changing and on media coverage of women’s basketball. The point guard claims that “brands like Nike recruiting girls in neighborhoods means that there’s hope for the future.”Laurent Goodrige, notes that “girls’ athletical ability is declining” on the court. In the last few years, PB18 has had trouble recruiting their quota of 20 young women for the program. The Coach mostly believes that the rate of progress is not the same in girls’ basketball as it is in boys. The most important thing for him is “to continue to help girls improve their skills, while staying loyal to the club’s core principles. I would much rather watch the girls improve year after year versus witness only a handful of them win French championships and have a career.”