Sports writer Ben Cropper has refused to let cerebral palsy hold him back. He tells Laura Drysdale why he is launching a media platform to help underprivileged reporters.
It is opportunities rather than barriers that sports writer Ben Cropper keeps focused on. But whilst he refuses to let cerebral palsy hold him back, his journey into journalism has not been without its challenges.
From issues getting accreditation to physical struggles with access into stadiums, 28-year-old Ben has dealt with many a frustration - and it is these difficulties that have now inspired him to set up a media platform of his own and use it to support other disabled and disadvantaged reporters.
“I’m keen to create my own sports media platform,” he says. “The aim is for underprivileged and diverse reporters to supply content for the website, so that I can give these people a voice and a chance to build a portfolio.”
Ben’s childhood growing up in the Bramley area of Leeds was one filled with sport. From as early as he can recall, he would watch football games with his father on the television and inspired by England’s rugby world cup win in 2003, he went to watch his first Rugby Union match in Headingley.
“Jonny Wilkinson played in the first game I remember. I was a bit of a fan boy and queued for hours after for his autograph,” he says.
He and his parents, Julie and Chris, have been season ticket holders with their local club, what is now known as Yorkshire Carnegie, ever since.
“My family have always been quite physically active and tried to inspire me to push boundaries and not let my physical limitations dictate who I am and what I want to be,” Ben says. “They like to focus on my ability rather than my disability.”
He swims, takes part in powerchair football and hopes to start boccia - but journalism has become a way to express his passion for a wide range of sports, including those he is not able to participate in.
“Throughout my life, I have always been a sports fanatic. I like any sport. I wanted to get into sports journalism as route of having that involvement in live sport without having to participate myself,” he explains.
He specialised in disability sport initially - “I thought that was a way in for me because I had a certain degree of empathy that other journalists weren’t getting” - but says he has tried to diversify.
He wants his website content to be broad ranging, covering both under-represented and mainstream sports and possibly branching out to include theatre and music reviews, in terms of both content and access to venues.
“Whilst I will do disability [sport] if the opportunity arises, I don’t want it to be about just disability sport as such because I would rather not be typecast.”
Back in 2007, during sixth form, Ben started to gain experience writing for what was then the Rugby Times, seeing his first article printed in the publication. He has since taken part in schemes including ‘Supporter 2 Reporter’, run by schools online network Radiowaves, and The Reporters’ Academy programme, giving media exposure to young people.
The former saw him cover the BT Paralympic World Cup for four years from 2008, alongside other young, disabled journalists and he secured exclusive interviews with Oscar Pistorius at the height of his career.
Through the latter, he was helped to get internships including at The Guardian and covered part of the World Para Athletics Championships London 2017, supported by Telegraph reporters, as part of a BP campaign to inspire a new generation of journalists with disabilities.
Ben’s other achievements include reporting on the 2010 Wheelchair Basketball World Championship - “I was the only UK print reporter” - securing coverage in local titles.
In 2012, he graduated from a sports journalism degree at Leeds Trinity University and come September, he now hopes to study as master’s in the same subject at Sheffield Hallam University.
“Wherever I work, I have to take a carer with me to meet my personal needs,” explains Ben, who now lives in a purpose-built adapted house in the Adel area of Leeds.
“As I get my name known, people are realising what I can do as an individual and seeing that potential barriers are quite easy to overcome if they work with me and my outside agencies. If they aren’t willing to do that, I feel like I miss out on opportunities as a result.”
Ben has always been keen that the wheelchair he uses does not define him but “it has been quite difficult”, he says, “and at times, frustrating, because I still think some employers see the wheelchair and automatically think barriers and limitations, where I can do things”.
“[Mum and dad] have brought me up with the mentality of trying to achieve what I want to,” he adds. “They have been quite instrumental in helping me push boundaries and focus on what I can achieve rather than what society might think I can achieve.”
Despite such a refreshingly positive attitude, Ben has faced hurdles. One-off opportunities that come up at short notice, and often in the capital, have proved difficult to access with additional needs due to little time to arrange care and hotels.
“There has also been issues getting [media] accreditation [for sporting events] sometimes because I don’t just need it for me, I need it for carers as well,” he says. “Some will reject it on the basis that it is taking up an accreditation space that another journalist could be using - they don’t acknowledge that without a carer being there, I can’t be there myself.”
“Physical access to sports stadiums is another big thing,” he explains. “A lot of them are old and the structures don’t lend themselves for [disabled] access to the media areas.” Some clubs have accommodated him into alternative areas but he recalls one experience of being told to ‘shush’ by fans who claim they were distracted from the game as he dictated text for his carer to live Tweet.
It is one of the reasons Ben is now working with Attitude is Everything, an organisation which aims to improve deaf and disabled people’s access to live music to promote better access in theatres, stadiums and arenas too.
His own struggles and frustrations are also behind his decision to start up independently, and though he’s not expecting to profit initially, he hopes to make it a subscription service in the long term.
He hopes to have it up and running by April, and determined to be able to do his own filming, editing and uploading, he has been working with a specialist IT and assisted technology firm so he can repeatedly produce and collate content without becoming fatigued.
His aim too is “to give the widest, broadest range of people the chance to produce content”. “Ultimately, I’d like to give opportunities to other disabled and disadvantaged reporters to promote diversity and inclusion in the industry.”
In the run up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, Ben was one of more than 7,300 people who carried the Olympic Flame in the Torch Relay.
He was a torchbearer in Bradford during its 8,000 mile journey around the UK, ahead of the opening ceremony.
He said: “Being an avid sports fan and to know I was part of history was pretty amazing.”
Ben spent the duration of the Paralympic Games in the capital, writing a blog about the action from his hotel room
He was gifted an Olympic torch by sponsor Samsung, which now sits in his home.
To contact Ben about potential writing opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org or search @croppersports on Twitter.