'Here to listen' -- How England Netball is striving for diversity on and off the court

'No-one looked like me' - How England Netball is striving for diversity (1:30)

Sasha Corbin, Sonia Mkoloma and Geva Mentor discuss how netball can continue to strive for inclusivity. (1:30)

When the England Roses won Commonwealth Games gold on the Gold Coast of Australia in 2018, they made history. It was their first Commonwealth netball title, winning with a dramatic final-second goal against the hosts.

Geva Mentor CBE remembers that moment well. It was her fifth Commonwealth Games but after years of third and fourth-placed finishes, she helped produce the greatest moment ever for English netball. Dominating in defence, with a performance that can only be described as world class, she held the Australian shooters at bay to keep England in the game. But for her, there was one element that helped contribute to England's success. Of the Team England netballers that travelled to Australia, half of the team were women of colour.

Speaking to ESPN from New Zealand, where she is taking part in her first England camp for two years, Mentor reminisces on her 20-year international career. She describes how the national squad has changed throughout the years, slowly including more women like herself -- strong, Black role models that could help empower the next generation. Now, she believes it is this diversity that makes England so special.

"We often joke about the beautiful diversity we have in netball and at the elite level, to have a mix of cultures is fantastic," says Mentor.

"We've got our Black girls, we've got our white girls, we've got our mixed girls like myself. I think when we try and narrow down what our style of play is and what our brand is, we do use that as our strength and our advantage. Look at the population of England: it is so diverse, so it's good that we can represent that through our sport.

"But what the great thing is, everyone embraces their pride and you actually almost don't see colour, you just see the personality and the skill they bring."

In 1978, 40 years before that memorable Commonwealth gold, Jean Hornsby travelled to the West Indies on her first senior netball tour. In doing so, she became the first Black netball player to represent England. Unaware of her significance then, she is recognised now as the woman who paved the way for the many Black and mixed-race players that have represented England at the highest level.

And netball is a sport where Black women have thrived at the top. In the Roses squad, 39% are of Black or mixed heritage, a figure that exceeds the national representation. There has been diverse representation in leadership, too, with Mentor included in the long list of Black and mixed-race players that have captained England. But, although there is a similar representation in the Superleague -- England's top competition -- in the wider sport this ethnic diversity is much less.

But these on-court challenges aren't limited to England. As a Commonwealth sport and with players from all different backgrounds and cultures performing on the world stage, they are seen globally too.

"When you see the world of netball come together, you do see faces of all colours, you see all different races on the court and we absolutely celebrate that in our sport," says Clare Briegal, CEO for World Netball. "But within each of our countries, I think our members have their own challenges and opportunities."

Briegal notes South Africa, where the country is still trying to make reparations to ensure the sport is available to all after Apartheid prevented Black players from representing their country until 1994. She mentions Australia too, where pathways are being built to help Indigenous players within netball.

The lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players in netball was noticed by Mentor when she moved to Australia to play in the league over a decade ago, a feeling she shared with her friend and former England teammate Sonia Mkoloma. It was a shock, and a stark difference to their experience playing in England.

But the issue came to the forefront in 2020, when Australia's top league -- Super Netball -- came under fire during their Indigenous round. A set of fixtures that celebrates the histories, cultures and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the competition's only indigenous player at the time, Jemma Mi Mi, was left on the bench for the entirety of her club's Indigenous round game. Having been Super Netball's poster girl for the event, Mi Mi's snub caused widespread backlash.

Now, Netball Australia has acknowledged there needs to be more representation of Indigenous players within netball, pledging "to take significant action to break down the barriers that have prevented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, coaches, umpires and administrators from flourishing in the sport."

Notable in that statement is the recognition of the wider community of the sport -- coaches, officials, volunteers and administrators. It is here that ethnic diversity is often forgotten but England Netball are attempting to it tackle head-on. Sparked by the murder of George Floyd and the resulting global Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, they knew they needed to do more, starting at board level.

In the following months, England Netball held "Here to Listen" forums with over 200 members to explore the experiences of the ethnically diverse community within netball, as well as co-opting a new member to the board, Jennifer Thomas. Their ultimate ambition: to build a culture of inclusion, equality, celebration and the desire to change throughout all levels of the organisation.

"I think when you look across the pathway through to the elite players, on the face of it you think 'that's a really diverse group of young women, girls and that is encouraging,'" Thomas tells ESPN.

"The other half of that story is the inclusion piece and that's the bit we're really focused on. It's not just about who physically is there and what communities and backgrounds they represent but it's also how they feel once they're there.

"We have to consider the whole netball community as well as the players. That is making sure we really understand the experiences people are having so that we're going into things with our eyes open and we're not complacent just because visibly you can see diversity."

Former England international Sasha Corbin is looking forward to seeing how netball grows. While netball to her is inclusive, she affirms things need to be done to improve that inclusivity off the court. She highlights the Superleague, where there are no Black head coaches within the franchises, only a few assistant coaches across the 11 teams. "It would be nice to see that in the future because these women can do it too," says Corbin. "It's not just based on colour, it's on if they can do the job, and there are women that can. It would be good to see that happening."

Mkoloma agrees with this sentiment. Now an assistant coach for England, she notes that by keeping the diversity within coaching, there will be Black people or people of colour in the system encouraging and supporting players coming through. "Young girls can look up to that and think 'I can be there and that can be me in the next couple of years," she says.

For Mentor, it is the simple things that will make the most change. She references the Legends Series, a run of Tests played between the Roses and a Superleague All-Star team when international games were cancelled due to COVID-19. The two teams contested for the Jean Hornsby Cup, a nod to the humble history-maker of 1978.

"We have a voice on court but we also have a voice and a presence off court and it is important we use that," says Mentor. "England Netball are very supportive and they know that we are the tools and drivers of our sport. The fact is that they have embraced that with forums, with action plans and actually listening to the people.

"This year, with the Legends Series, being able to acknowledge our first Black netballer, Jean Hornsby, is fantastic. Although you can't change the past, you can definitely educate and make a better change for the future."

Mentor is now back in Australia, quarantining after England made history again as they took their first ever Test series victory on New Zealand soil. When asked about why she thinks netball has been successful in raising the conversation around diversity and inclusion, she smiles, and says, "It comes from the people."

"If we stand for something and we all believe in something, we make sure that we make that change at a higher level," she adds. "I think that's where netball is a really safe space for us all."