Buying student athletes - Jamaica's debate

race start
By Dania Bogle, writing from Kingston
Usain Bolt, the biggest name in Jamaican sport, came out of one of the more non-traditional high schools in the island – William Knibb – nestled in the rural parish of Trelawny.
But the star athlete could have gone to one of the more well-known traditional high schools, had the right coach been able to coax him away.
The issue of student athletes transferring from one school to another is a well-accepted fact of school sports in Jamaica.
However, recent developments have now led to the intervention of Jamaica’s Education Minister, Ronald Thwaites.
During the last schoolboy football season, the transfer of at least five boys from a popular Kingston high school to rival teams caused a minor uproar.
Two of the schools in question had their football teams branded with professional sounding monikers.
Wolmer’s Boys was nicknamed “Wolmer’s United” while St George’s College was branded “STGC FC”.
Transfer window
The practice is also popular among high school track and field athletes who participate in competitions governed by the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA).
Mr Thwaites has described it as “vulgar” and signalled his intent to stamp it out by an act of parliament if possible.
“Many of the schools the students are 'bought' from are trying to find their feet in the ISSA competitions and it is unfortunate when their best talent is lured to other places," he said.
So what do the affected schools think?
Nigel Webb is football coach of Holy Trinity, one of the non-traditional schools which lost two crucial players, including a goalkeeper, to St. George’s College last season.
“It has affected my teams a lot [because] they tend to take the better players from the school,” Webb told Caribbean Intelligence©.
He noted that that very goalkeeper saved an important goal against St George’s in a game against his former team.
“Just imagine if we had those two players,” he said.
Mr Webb admitted that it was the prestige of attending a “name brand” school that had attracted his players.
“Some of the coaches promise to get them into the national programme and more exposure [if they come],” he said.
Lascelve Graham, a former coach of the St George’s football team, has been running a media campaign through newspaper columns and letters to editors for more than two years, advocating an end to the practice.
“It’s wrong. All our students are citizens of Jamaica,” he said.
“Those that are poor coming from poor backgrounds need all the help they can get. Everybody has a right to education and you don’t have more of a right to education if you are a sports star.”
Dr Graham noted that in one track season, Bolt’s alma mater lost 12 of its athletes, while another school close by, which produced NBA star Samardo Samuels, lost seven of its athletes.
Spread the skills
“I would like to see the practice banned in Jamaica - the business of our high schools bringing in youngsters based on their sport ability in an attempt to influence the outcome of sporting events... because that’s why it’s done,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“Youngsters are excelling from all schools all over Jamaica and if we give them a chance, we will find the success will be spread much more evenly all over the schools and it will be better for our education system and our socialisation, because the only reason we recruit is to win.
“William Knibb is now a much better overall school because Usain Bolt is out there. It is a better educational institution and, with the success of a Bolt, the whole community benefits.”
However, ISSA president Walton Small disagrees with both Dr Graham’s and Mr Thwaites’ assessment.
He told Caribbean Intelligence© that academics were the primary reasons for student transfers and said that, while there were reports of schools using enticements to attract students, these were usually isolated cases.
Dr Small added that he had learned that some schools had actually abandoned the athletes once they could no longer contribute to their sporting performance.
“We do not support any administration that abuse our students. If these things are happening, then individuals need to point out these things, rather than make an issue of something that is not relevant at their school,” he said.
Attracting talent
Michael Clarke is coach of Calabar, which won the 2011 high school track and field championships and also has a reputation for recruiting student athletes.
He and many other high school track coaches attend preparatory and primary school athletic championships every year with a view to attracting talented youngsters to attend their schools once they are of age.
He told Caribbean Intelligence© that the practice was accepted worldwide and followed by major educational institutions such as Harvard and Yale universities in the United States.
“The practice, within good reason, is a respectable and honourable one. It provides an avenue where a student athlete’s own talents can be developed,” he said in an interview with Caribbean Intelligence©.
“It’s about attracting the talent that you think can best suit your objectives or needs.
“Nowadays, academic pursuit is not the only talent that is required to make a difference in someone’s life.”
ISSA has set an academic standard of a minimum 45% average for a student to be able to continue to participate in any competition it administers.
Mr Clarke said that, at his school, periodic assessments were conducted to ensure that their boys are keeping up with their school work.
“It’s a major part of my responsibility to make sure to encourage student athletes to have an appreciation for academic standards,” he explained.
“Every now and then, we try to identify students who are having issues and problems. We identify and have classes for students who are having issues and we act on behalf of parents who are not sufficiently equipped. It’s an intervention that we see as being very important to us.”
Under scrutiny
Meanwhile, Mr Thwaites has ordered a local psychologist to conduct an investigation into whether or not there is an inordinate number of transfers.
Dr Clarke says that he appreciates the minister’s approach: “I think he has gone about it the right way. He acknowledges that he doesn’t know about it and wants to know more the intelligent way.”
Dr Small agreed in principle and said that, while his organisation is run on funding from corporate sponsors, he had no issue with an investigation once the Ministry of Education was prepared to fund it.
There is also the suggestion that the ambitions of parents can be as much to blame as the coaching and teaching profession.
Public relations executive Carole Beckford pointed out in December that similar transfer practices in the US were monitored by regulatory authorities.
“I say we boost the human resources of ISSA to help them with the work they have already started to ensure that the moves are above board and there is very little, if any, inappropriate behaviour by schools and/or coaches,” she wrote as the president of Jamaica’s annual Business of Sport forum.
“The history of dialogue and setting up of teams in Jamaica [task forces] to look at issues doesn't have resolutions coming too quickly, but if we can 'stamp out' some of the known areas of activity where the transfers are blatant, then we would be a few steps ahead.
“Parents have a right to offer their children the best option, but not for a fridge, stove, car or money.”