BBall: Collegiate Sports in Cairo From A Student Athlete's Perspective
It was a warm sunny Saturday in Ann Arbor, a little less than an hour away from downtown Detroit.
I was spending a quick 10 days with one of my uncles before college season back in Cairo began. Upwards of 100,000 frenzied spectators, including myself, flocked in from every corner of Detroit to witness the Michigan Wolverines’ season-opening game in “The Big House,” home to The University of Michigan College Football. Infinite streams of maize and blue gushed into the stadium before my eyes, as I stood still in the midst of it all, I was taken aback by the frantic atmosphere around me; a true testament to the stature of college sports in the U.S.
Flash-forward a couple months and there I was, sitting on the team bench during one of the national tournament basketball games at my college, The American University in Cairo, annually partakes in. Swish. A teammate of mine drilled an impressive long distance 3-point shot – which drew nothing but a faint clapping noise generated by a few members of a disgruntled second unit, and the entire gym went back into absolute silence as the lifeless ball game trudged on.
I had picked up the beautiful game of basketball less than two years prior to that, rapidly growing captivated and occupied by it. I regularly stayed up after midnight just to watch every single game my NBA team played live; it would show all over my face the next morning whenever my team would lose any game, even if an insignificant one. However, my love for the game extended far beyond the boundaries of being a mere viewer; I consistently worked on my game day after day, and elevated it in a way that allowed me to eventually make the cut for my college team.
However, I had previously envisioned the team to be a little differently before I joined it. A naïve 17 year-old me had big dreams of playing at a much higher level of competitiveness, in a completely different atmosphere than the one I experienced. I had dreams of my family and friends coming out during weekends to cheer me on during the bigger games, I was hopeful of hitting a game winning shot in front of hundreds of spectators I thought would be coming out to watch the games my team played. But here I am today, quietly sitting on the team bench pondering why my dreams weren’t even remotely realised. Why is it I could hear a pin drop in a gym housing a college game which took place right in the thick of the season? Why was I able to count using a single hand the number of spectators witnessing the game? Where was that vigorous ‘college sports’ atmosphere present in other parts of the world?
The answers to those questions lie partly within the low popularity levels the sport of basketball possesses in Egypt, but more particularly in the suffocating dynamic of sports in the country of Egypt. Here’s a brief tale of how it works. At a very tender age, a rich percentage of children – often the ones of ex-athletes – are sent to sporting clubs to enrol in an academy for a certain sport, and hopefully later join the club’s ‘first’ team. Setting them up for success.
It can be argued that this process of becoming a star athlete brings a ton of good to the table, whether it’s the glorified healthy lifestyle experts will always rave about or a significantly improved social life, amongst numerous other benefits that accompany enrolling in this particular life-changing cycle.
Flipside. College sports. As those child athletes age and thrive within their respective sports, they begin to demonstrate a certain form of adherence to the clubs they were nurtured in – in part because visiting their clubs for practice and mingling with their close friends has become such an integral part of their everyday life, but more plainly due to the salaries they receive from their parent clubs here in Egypt for doing what they do.
While it is both true and worth noting that the majority of these aforementioned salaries are far from being satisfactory – speaking in terms of a career path one can take – the presence of a financial incentive, however minute or seemingly small, eliminates any doubts that can encounter players once faced with the unfortunately ever-present dilemma of College vs. Club.
From then it all begins; players heavily prioritize club practice ahead of its college counterpart; only this last week after we had concluded our first practice session of the semester, the coach convened with us to schedule fixed practice days for the upcoming college season. To the great displeasure of myself, the coach and the remaining players who did not practice basketball at external sporting clubs, the dialogue quickly transformed from finding time slots that didn’t conflict with any of our academic courses into accommodating club players and making certain they wouldn’t miss a single one of their club practices. And if you thought it was already bad enough that a fat chunk of our team’s roster was repeatedly missing team practice, then get this – the same players that skip those practice sessions, are the same exact ones that the coach awards with big minutes on the court during game day.
I mean no knock on the players themselves who in no scenario are the ones to take the blame for this plight we’ve found ourselves in as a college team, on the contrary, those particular players boast the highest levels of skill and talent, and are right to favor and pursue their professional club careers. However, the fact remains that college sports and to a greater extent sportsmanship in this country is being exponentially harmed due to the nature of this movement.
At this point you're thinking, there's no way it gets even worse from here, surely? Ever heard of the offseason? Those long holidays with no ongoing tournaments or academic courses when college athletes anywhere else put in work to earn more minutes during the upcoming scheduled games? Well, counterintuitively of course, our team stays at home during these periods. How are you going to practice set plays and game plans when almost your entire starting unit is not present at training?
All of this coupled by a few logistical limitations, actions that add up, or the ‘little things’ like our own university athletic office opting to rent out our basketball courts mid-season, or the fact that our games are so poorly advertised, has created a drab and lackluster environment that puts to bed any hopes of advancement of the college sport.
This is my college sports story told through the lens of the sport I love and play. However, as an athlete within the country of Egypt, I do feel like I owe it to fellow athletes in different sports who find themselves challenged with the same dilemma, to convey the following – the scenario described throughout this article is nothing foreign to the rest of college sports in the country. I’d even go so far as to say that my university’s basketball team has it better than the rest; after speaking to several others from various sports, it has become my understanding that some college teams do not even have scheduled team practices.
A collegiate-level sports team that never meets except for on official matches; therein lies the radical manifesto of my frustrations.
This article is by no means written with any purpose of antagonizing or blaming the ‘dual-teamed players’ (let’s call them that for the time being) who are, in mine and the eyes of many, choosing the logical and correct career path of any athlete within the country of Egypt. This article is merely the sincere and very brief account of a dedicated college student-athlete who has grown deeply frustrated with a process designed to stifle any hopes of elevating the level, experience and overall quality of college sports inside the country of Egypt.