When this newspaper began spending every spare dollar we could find on football in 1972 (and continued doing the same with both football and basketball, until six years ago), there were a bunch of people in leadership positions in this community who were writing this off as just a case of sports fanaticism on Partridge Street’s part.
Today, forty years later, desperation has set in amongst the various PUDP community leaders, and you will hear them speak wistfully of sports programs. They are almost apologetic; they say it will keep the youngsters busy, keep them out of trouble.
We were ahead of our time, is how some people put it. We began pushing the idea of professionalism in football as early as 1975. Our belief was that anything worth doing was worth doing well, and the highest level of any activity is when that activity is professional in nature.
Belize was a colonial society, and the amateur sports structure in British Honduras emphasized the power of the referees. Those who inherited the internal power of the British after self-government in 1964, in retrospect, were just as colonial in their thinking when it came to sports. They were immediately opposed to professionalism in sports, because they saw that the players would become important, maybe prominent. Where would the stars come from? The saga of football Dunlop in the late 1950s and the changes in basketball after the sport moved to the St. Ignatius School basketball court in the mid-1960s, clearly suggested that the stars would come from the downtrodden. In Belize City fifty years ago, “downtrodden” meant one thing – black!
The People’s United Party (PUP) was quite black at its formation in 1950, because it represented the downtrodden. The early PUP was considered ragamuffin. 19 years later, the rise of the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) indicated that the PUP was no longer black enough.
Mr. Price, however, was a professional politician whose decisions were not ruled by personal considerations. After UBAD split in two in 1975, and half of its leadership helped spark the new United Democratic Party’s rise to political strength in 1974,Mr. Price reached out to the other half of UBAD, the faction which had remained independent. This was the faction led by Evan X Hyde, publisher/editor of Amandala, who had run as the only UBAD candidate in the Collet constituency in the October 1974 general elections.
When the PUP returned to power in 1979 in a somewhat surprising victory, the new Minister of Sports, Hon. Said Musa, announced the formation of a historic National Sports Council, and chose as the NSC’s first chairman-designate, Evan X Hyde. This was a daring move on Mr. Musa’s part, because the forces of amateurism, led by the Barry Bowen soft drink and beer empire, were extremely powerful, and Evan X Hyde was controversial. At the eleventh hour, Evan X Hyde declined the NSC chairmanship offer: he had seen the power of the Bowen empire in its dealings with Sir Andie, and knew he had no chance in such a faceoff.
Belize is a small place, where personal antagonisms sometimes motivate important decisions. The PUP decision in 1980 to build the Belize City Center and purchase a modern basketball court may have been more an attempt to put Henry Young in his place than anything else. Young’s Bird’s Isle was making a lot of money hosting basketball, and the sport’s ranking superstar, Clinton “Pulu” Lightburn, felt that players were being treated unfairly. The new “Civic” opened in 1981, but basketball became a divided sport: private enterprise at Bird’s Isle, state–run at Civic. Today, the Civic is abandoned, and basketball has returned to Bird’s Isle. We’ve come full circle. Semi-professionalism is dead, or, at least, moribund. Sports has returned to colonialism, except for football.
Football recently escaped from the Bertie Chimilio stranglehold of dictatorship, and a surge of energy has resulted. The problem with football in Belize is that it never committed completely to professionalism. The referees, as organized, controlled and dominated the sport, and this was what led to the Bertie Chimilio era. Bertie became bigger than Tiliman, law and order had higher priority than fan enthusiasm, and that is not how things work in professional sports.
Football went semi-professional in 1991, and basketball followed in 1992. Said Musa, who was again Minister of Sports, deserves a lot of the credit for both these revolutionary steps, but twenty years later semi-pro basketball is dead. Semi-pro football staggers along bravely. Based on 1992, you would have guessed that semi-pro basketball, as compared to semi-pro football, was the better bet to survive, because there were no travel costs for basketball. But, it is what it is. The casino is dying to buy out the MCC, and the Civic is officially obsolete.
In colonial days, we Belizeans had no problem entertaining ourselves with our own sports and culture. The commitment of our leaders should have absolutely been to professionalism in both sports and culture. Belize, we insist, should boast a professional theatre company and a professional dance company, or two. Television entered the society and showed Belizeans a level of performance which placed pressure on local sports and culture. The political leaders were never nationalistic enough. Damn. A society which cannot even entertain itself on weekends and holidays is a sick society.
The key thing is that Belize refused to contemplate a field of dreams for its downtrodden. Belize insisted that the classes which were already privileged should remain in power in sports and culture. The privileged classes did not have enough talent, and television exposed that for all of Belize to see. Belize drove Pulu and Tiliman off the stage because they were not part of the privileged classes. In America, by contrast, Michael Jordan and Jay-Z came from roots and now they own National Basketball Association (NBA) franchises.
Belize is a society controlled by special families. They want their children to play sports, but they don’t want them to compete with roots youth. That is why they despise professionalism, because in their minds and in their heads they believe that they are better than the masses. Because they insisted that that better-ness should extend to and include sports and culture, this is where we are forty years later – right back where we were. When the sun goes down, shat di lick …