How a Jefferson County basketball tournament is teaching young people about conflict resolution

By Alaina Bookman

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is taking to the basketball court to persuade teens and young adults to settle quarrels or feuds with words – not guns.

A community basketball tournament, organized this summer by the sheriff’s department and sponsored by Hoopfest, focuses on improving conflict resolution skills in a healthy, sports-oriented environment to bring together community members of Jefferson County, tournament officials said.

Middle and high school students and community members up to 28 years old across Jefferson County can register to compete in the basketball tournament as a safe summer activity. The next games will take place on Aug. 5 at City Walk. The winners of each event will be invited to the Tournament of Champions taking place the following weekend on Aug. 12 at Railroad Park, where winners will be awarded $3,000.

The tournament began June 24, and the most recent one was Saturday at the Hoover Met.

Under a clear sunny sky and a blanket of heat, in a parking lot behind the Met, young men practiced their layups and ran drills. Some players dribbled the ball between their legs from one hand to the other, while others worked on their free throw shots – everyone had high energy and seemed excited for the game to start.

Jordan Woods, a player participating in the 20-24 age group, said the Sheriff’s basketball tournament was a good way to bring the community together. He and his two close friends played on the same team, saying they were also able to meet other people and work together.

Once it was time for the games to begin, Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway called all the players in for a huddle. He and other organizers stressed the importance of using conflict resolution even outside of a basketball game and prayed for the players and their families.

“We want you to understand that violence is not the way to resolve conflict. If you have to, just walk away. That way you stay alive, and the other person stays alive,” Pettway said. “We don’t want to lose anyone to violence. We want y’all to respect one another”

Derrick Murphy, member of the Hoover City Council, also talked to the players about the importance of conflict resolution in everyday life. “What happens on the court is you get a foul and you get put out of the game. Translate that to life, you could lose a job, you could go to jail, or you could get something on your record.”

At each game, Pettway personally speaks to the participants at the basketball tournament, teaching them nonviolent conflict resolution tactics.

“It’s a really good opportunity to interact with young people that typically are hard to reach,” Birmingham City Councilor Clinton Woods said. “It gives us an opportunity just to talk about conflict resolution.”

During a past tournament, Pettway paused the game to talk to younger participants, reminding them of the different methods to diffuse conflict when tensions ran high during a heated play.

“What we’re seeing in the communities is a lot of young people making bad decisions, so the sheriff’s main focus is letting young people know there’s people in the community who care about them,” Woods said. “A lot of them just don’t really have those people in their lives.”

One Birmingham mother, whose son was playing in the youngest division, said she was grateful to attend the basketball tournament because there are no public places in their neighborhood for her son, who loves basketball, to play a pick-up game with other young people.

“A lot of times there are panels about this but the people you want to talk to, they’re not going to come. The people who are out here shooting and carrying guns around, they’re not coming to a rally,” Woods said. “You have to create ways to reach out and connect with them.”

Woods said future games will include food trucks, face painting, and bounce houses and organizers are hoping to provide haircuts and nail services – just in time for back-to-school season.

Just because the tournament is coming to an end, doesn’t mean Pettway is finished spreading his message about conflict resolution.

Pettway said he and his team are working to expand the basketball tournament beyond state lines and make it an annual event to further spread the message of the importance of conflict resolution.