Opinion: Stop exploiting student athletes

By L Bronson

The primary mandate of schools in any society is to transmit knowledge and academic skills. But schools also serve other functions in their quest to produce well-rounded individuals. These functions can be identified as manifest (socialization and the transmission of cultural norms and values) or latent functions.

Sport and other extracurricular activities are also part of the education system.

Raging debate

There is a raging debate about the proper balance between academics and sports in Jamaican schools, even as sports have blossomed and expanded significantly within the school system.

ISSA

The Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA), a body of school principals responsible for organizing high school sports competitions, has been the bedrock of sports development in Jamaica for many a year.

With the explosion of professional athletes over the past two decades, it’s obvious sport is no longer merely recreation as in former years.

As an underdeveloped country, Jamaica’s high schools receive very little governmental support for sport. This results, inevitably, in sports taking a back seat.

But sport is a rapidly growing multi-billion-dollar industry, It’s also an internationally recognized career path.

This debate has continued over the years because of ISSA’s  interventions of introducing regulations to curtail the unhealthy and downright nefarious shenanigans of some schools in their blinkered quest for sporting glory.

Star athletes being abandoned

We’ve heard of stories of student-athletes who brought glory to their schools in a sport, but who left their schools without any academic achievement, and that’s putting it kindly. These students are usually unable to fend for themselves, and more importantly, ill-equipped to function in society at levels deserving of graduates of such high profile institutions.

45 percent grade average rule

One of the ISSA rules states students must achieve a 45 per cent grade average in at least four subjects to eligibly compete for any of ISSA’s competitions.

The body also recently amended rules barring students from participating in ISSA-run competitions if they transfer more than once, and capped the number of transfer students schools can include in their teams.

Opposed by Minister Grange

Caught up in the mix was Minister of Sports Olivia Grange, who has opposed the minimum 45 percent rule. In her opinion, students shouldn’t be prevented from playing sports because their grades fall below a set standard.

“I think there are students who are very talented in sports, and others strong in academics; I think there can be a balance. Where a student is very good in sports that student should get special assistance in developing his academics. He/she shouldn’t be penalized because he/she hasn’t maintained a certain level. You need to work with that student to ensure he/she can develop as a whole person.

“Some countries have schools that focus on sports, and others on the performing arts. I think we need to look at that model in Jamaica and see how we can work with our young people to develop their talent, be it academics or sports.”

But ISSA’s vice-president Keith Wellington, Principal of St. Elizabeth Technical High School, defers with the minister.

ISSA executive stands firm

Wellington told the Gleaner, “Neither the Minister of Sport, nor Education, has the legal authority to dictate the rules of ISSA because we are an organization set up independently of any government agency. In addition, membership to ISSA is based on invitation. When accepted, members have to pay their application fee and are expected to abide by the organization’s rules.

“We have to hold [schools] accountable for their performances. The 45 percent isn’t even a decent standard. The rationale for the rule is to ensure legitimate students are participating. I am totally in opposition to the minister as the rule is required.

“Looking where our successes came from in the past, we  recognize they came from athletes who had opportunity to continue their education beyond high school. MVP, for example,  undoubtedly our most successful track club has a policy where they recruit students to be enrolled in college. Prior to that, most of our successful athletes went through the US collegiate system and benefitted from attending universities in the USA.”

It’s because of their core mandate that school leaders, and ISSA, in particular, has imposed eligibility rules for high school students to focus on classwork grades and the governance of transfers between schools.

But it has grown difficult to maintain control as the major sporting competitions garner increasing monetary support, and the quest for glory gets higher.

The last two decades have made professional athletes in track and field, football, cricket, and even swimming, among the top earners in the country. This would have been unthinkable in the past.

Mount Pleasant Football Academy

But education is also changing, evidenced by the establishment of the Mount Pleasant Football Academy in St Ann.

In September Englishman Peter Gould opened his Mount Pleasant Football Academy to 55 boys, aged 11-15, on an 88-acre property. Students will receive football training with high school education curriculum directed by the Ministry of Education.

Proposed solution

This, we believe, is the solution to the debate, as these academies are the norm in many other countries big on sports.

However, In Jamaica these would need to driven by the private sector, as the government have to apportion scare resources in other socially demanding areas than sports.  

However, the establishment of football, cricket and track and field clubs already exist, and they should play a role in developing sports specific talent.

Should students who are incapable of maintaining their place in high schools because of academic shortcomings be exploited for sporting glory, then left to fend for themselves after school? Why not enter the sports specific clubs instead of high schools, develop their God-given talent and try to maximize their potential? 

We hope the private sector will create other sports specific academies like Mount Pleasant, not just for football, but other sports. Then, and only then, will the current debate subside.

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