Sat | Apr 29, 2017

Ball in ISSA’s court re Champs' activities

Published:Tuesday | April 7, 2015 | 4:00 AMOral Tracey
Calabar High’s Champs superstar, Michael O’Hara (right), getting the better of Jaheel Hyde of Wolmer’s Boys', in the Class One 110m hurdles final at the National Stadium.

The now infamous action of Calabar High School star athlete and team captain, Michael O'Hara, in displaying his undershirt with the conspicuous tag line of Digicel, at an event which was part sponsored by telecoms competitor LIME, has stolen almost all the post Champs headlines.

Opinions continue to be split regarding the level of nefariousness at play in this act that has been since characterised as "ambush" or "guerilla marketing".

The consensus seems to be, however, that regardless of the genesis of this undershirt idea, the entire episode by O'Hara was executed in an unethical and unprincipled manner.

This controversy, however, has opened up a much more significant can of worms as it relates to the integrity of Jamaican high school sports, going forward. A clear definition of who is a professional athlete relative to an amateur athlete needs to be established urgently.

If it is permissible that students can officially be in the high school system and as professional athletes, then it is clearly unfair and morally unacceptable that these pros be allowed to compete in our totally amateur school competitions. If that is accepted, then things absolutely must change urgently in order to rescue and maintain the credibility of high school sports in Jamaica.

The likes of O'Hara himself, as well as the World Youth, World Junior and Youth Olympic champion and Wolmer's Boys School standout, Jaheel Hyde, who both have endorsement deals with different sponsors, have managed to slip through the proverbial cracks which were not covered by the rule books of the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA).

As it is now stands, attending high school and competing at Champs - having signed endorsement deals - is not an offence punishable by ISSA.

Therefore, neither O'Hara nor Hyde is culpable. They along with their endorsers have managed to trod carefully and successfully through the existing grey areas.

One must take issue, however, with the notion that the signing of these high school students constitutes abuse and exploitation. I think it is a well informed and deliberate decision made by the likes of O'Hara and Hyde to go professional. These are two of Jamaica's and indeed the world's elite athletes at this level, who are exposed to competent advice.

They obviously chose deliberately to forfeit the option of gaining scholarships to American Colleges and Universities, after all that has been the recent trend which has borne such great fruit for top Jamaican athletes and our track and field progress in general.

The governing body of high school sports in Jamaica, ISSA, needs to now act swiftly and decisively to put some carefully thought out stipulations in place, aimed at rendering professional athletes ineligible to compete at Champs and indeed all ISSA-run events.

First, there must be some clearly defined criteria as to who is or is not a professional athlete. Then it should be made clear to all high school athletes that once they enter into professional sponsorship or endorsement agreements, they can kiss competing at Champs goodbye, the way they kissed USA collegiate careers goodbye.

Knowing how much competing and excelling at Champs means to most young Jamaican athletes, I suspect that more careful consultations and thought will go into making the choice between remaining amateur and going professional.

Fortunately, for the likes of O'Hara and Hyde, the choice was less complicated; they were allowed by the circumstances to stay in school, sign their endorsement deals and also compete at Champs. They were basically allowed to have their cakes and eat them, a scenario which is morally and ethically unsustainable. ISSA, the ball is in your court.