Inside the world of student-athlete recruitment
The average person may not be aware, but the events that go on behind the scenes as it relates to the recruiting of athletes for high schools in Jamaica, if put on film, would make for interesting watching. In a quest to make their school win Manning or daCosta Cup, or Champs, or the Grace Shield or Headley Cup cricket titles, some schools in Jamaica are known to spare nothing to get the top sports students. Recruiting has become, in itself, a competition, sometimes as intense and passionate as anything that happens on the field.
In preparing to write this piece, I spoke to some of the top athletics, football and cricket coaches in Jamaica. None of them wanted to be quoted. What I have been told over the last week and a half completely surprised me. I have been a sports journalist for approximately 20 years and I didn't think there was much I didn't know about sports in Jamaica. I was wrong.
I had always known that those schools that constantly do well in these sports very rarely do it on the back of those students who were 'naturally' part of their school. I have always known that the top sports schools in Jamaica flourish because they were good at getting the right students into their schools. What I wasn't aware of was the kind of machinations that go on well before a ball is kicked or a race is run.
I wasn't aware that, from a youngster showed real potential in any of the three sports mentioned above, he or she becomes marked. Once talented 'tweens or teens show real ability at the primary or prep-school level, scouts from these top schools would find these youngsters' parents. Then an open bidding war ensues. Parents are promised anything - from a little money in their account to a scholarship to go abroad.
I said 'scouts', as opposed to coaches, because quite often the head coach is not the one doing the recruiting, not directly at least. Such a job is often left to somebody else, often a well-known old boy. Even if the coach identifies the student athletes he wants, very often he has a henchman who would undertake the persuasion of parents - almost as if the coach doesn't want to lower himself to the possibility of facing rejection.
After all this wooing of parents, the youngster is then placed into a high-profile high school, to much fanfare. The better he performs, the more he is treated like the prized chicken. The opposite is often true, though.
If that early potential doesn't show itself, the student athlete can be made to feel quite disconsolate. It's not that the coach or the school treats him badly or any differently from any other students. They treat him normally - but he is not accustomed to normal treatment. His sporting gifts would have made him seen as special in the eyes of everyone, and he or she often develops an early ego.
If he fails to do well at the high school he was parachuted into, that student will be aware that he has severely disappointed everyone. God alone knows what depression such students must go through when they are treated like royalty at 12, only to be treated normally at 16.
When I asked the coaches why they go to such great lengths to recruit these students, I was told that it's just business. Their salary is often tied to their success. The coaches for national age-group teams are quite often chosen on the basis of how well their teams do in school competitions. So, once a coach is bright and ambitious and wants to go on to national duty, he will see recruitment as part of his job.
I was told that old boys are more likely to pump money into a school where the sports team is doing well. So a school that wins Champs benefits generally, not only the sports programmes. The old boys are more likely to fix the science lab or help kick-start the cadet programme, if their school wins the Manning Cup.
Everybody wants to be associated with winners. Principals know this, and this is why they sometimes give the coaches and their henchmen free rein to haul in the top students.
Recruiting won't stop any time soon. For better or worse, it's here to stay - a necessary evil in the Jamaican school system.
Orville Higgins is a sports journalist and talk-show host with KLAS ESPN FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.