March 15: The Christchurch sporting organisations trying to improve diversity

Two years on from the March 15 terror attacks, several Christchurch sporting organisations are working together to improve the inclusivity and diversity of their game.

Mainland Football and Canterbury Cricket were hit hard by the March 15 attacks in 2019. Many members of the Muslim community who lost their lives at the Al Noor or Linwood Mosque were also involved with sport in the region. 

"Our connection as a sport to what happened was quite bad. We had a number of players that lost their lives, which meant there was a huge outpouring of grief in the football community," Mainland Football chief executive Julian Bowden says. 

In the weeks following the event, Sport Canterbury boss Julyan Falloon met Abdigani Ali at a local forum. He was the co-founder of the Canterbury Resilience Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation with the aim of supporting young Muslims in the region, often through sporting activities. 

"I walked away from that meeting thinking how can we make something good out of something so horrific, and also utilise sport as part of the healing process to nicely confront issues around racism and being more inclusive," Falloon says. 

Together the two organisations, along with local sporting bodies developed the 'Game Plan', a three-phase strategy aimed at creating resources, funding and inclusive sports programmes for minority groups in the community. 

The initiative inspired Canterbury Cricket and Mainland Football to establish an ethnic diversity and Inclusion programme anager position, which Hussain Hanif was appointed last month. 

"One of the things we felt we needed was somebody to come in and help drive this program, because what we saw was a whole lot of opportunity to better connect," Bowden says.

Born in Auckland, of Muslim faith, Hanif has been living in Melbourne for the past 12 years, working in a similar role with Cricket Victoria and Cricket Australia. 

"The horrific attacks created this opportunity and the great thing is, two organisations are collaborating together on this subject which is unheard of in New Zealand, or around the world," Hanif says. 

New Zealand Cricket and the New Zealand Football Federation are helping to fund the 18-month role. The Blackcaps were supposed to play Bangladesh in Christchurch the day after the mosque attacks, but with the test match being cancelled, players from both sides donated their match fees to the cause. 

In his first month of the job, Hanif has identified education as a key way to making the sport more inviting and comfortable for members of the Muslim community.

"When a young Muslim person says 'I need to go and pray quickly, I'll be back' at least there will be an understanding behind it. If someone asks the question 'why are our Muslim women not playing cricket?' 

"Well, essentially our staff will then be able to say well X, Y and Z," Hanif says. 

Last year's Royal Commission report into the mosque attacks recognises the need to improve social cohesion in Aotearoa. Hanif believes sport could be the perfect way to do so, but it's not currently happening. 

"If we go down to the local premier cricket match on a Saturday, we don't see migrant groups playing with Palangi kiwis. So the challenge is, how do we actually change that, and make sure it's happening from the grassroots level?"

Hanif has also met with the Crusaders and Mainland Netball in the past few weeks who have shown an interest in his new role. 

One point he raised was it's uncommon to see Muslim families attending professional sports games due to alcohol being against their religion, so he suggested some easy ways to try and change that.

"Muslims don't drink and they don't like alcohol, so is there an alcohol-free fan zone? There is already a kids zone, is there an ability to have the kids zone and the Muslim community sitting together?"

Mainland Football believes the partnership will not only be good for their game but their own staff too. 

"One thing we've realised is there's quite a big education piece to be done on our clubs, and even our staff here at Mainland. We want to better understand what diversity and inclusion mean, and how we become more welcoming for all in the community," Bowden says. 

Sport Canterbury agrees with that vision. 

"I was adamant out of something so terrible we needed to get something positive for our sector and also use sport to confront some of those issues that were magnified through terror attacks, but also improve pathways and opportunities for a more ethnically diverse society," Falloon says. 

Hanif says implementing any changes will not be a "quick fix", but hopes during his time he can improve the engagement and wellbeing of the community. 

"We're in an opportunist time to try and make a real difference in our society, and we can definitely use sport as that vehicle."