Thu | Oct 6, 2022

Basil Jarrett | High-school sports escapism

Published:Thursday | September 22, 2022 | 12:06 AM
Athletes, coaches and administrators celebrate a successful end to the 49th Carifta Games inside the National Stadium.
Athletes, coaches and administrators celebrate a successful end to the 49th Carifta Games inside the National Stadium.

Last week, I wrote an article decrying the practice of past student associations and other benefactors spending disproportionately on high-school sports, as opposed to supporting teaching and learning in the classroom. As you can imagine, the hate mail was immense. I think I need to seriously consider setting up a dedicated email address for those letters, preferably one that scans and filters all forms and spellings of our most popular curse words.

In reference to our poor CSEC performance in math, I wrote last week that “It’s easy to see why these numbers and these performances do not motivate past students and other benefactors to get involved. Academics are simply not that exciting.” I also noted that the lofty achievements of the Campions and the Immaculates simply do not get the same level of recognition as our typical Champs or Manning Cup winners.

But I think what really triggered the vitriol was my calling out the group for “spending lavishly on their high school’s sports teams, but ending up sending their own children elsewhere to get a solid education”. That one really stung.

A SPORTING CHANCE

Some writers quite rightly pointed out that for many youngsters, sports was the only way out of their socio-economic malaise. This is true. But I’d still argue that for many more, a solid education built on the three R’s of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic was a more practical escape route. To be clear, I’m not denouncing high-school sports. I played sports for both my high school and university. Even our friend ‘Muggy’ Graham, who opened this can of worms a few weeks ago, will tell you that while he has a PhD in chemistry, he was also a standout footballer back in the day, having represented his alma mater, St George’s College, and also Jamaica.

So no, we aren’t anti-sports. Rather, we are pro-balance.

The problem, though, is that most Jamaicans place such a high value on entertainment and escape from the pressures of life, that sporting entertainment often serves as that most accessible and most welcome relief. It’s the same with music. It’s no accident that the towns, cities and countries with the highest levels of poverty and economic distress, often have the richest, most diverse and most eclectic musical cultures. Poverty and distress provide an excellent breeding ground for creative escape, sporting and otherwise. Sport pacifies and placates. It soothes and distracts. A win for your favourite sports team temporarily diverts your attention from the fact there is no food in the house and no water in the pipes. It is the safest escape drug.

So on the weekend, when your favourite high-school team trots out, who cares that your star midfielder is repeating fifth form for the umpteenth time, and barely has three subjects under his belt? Who cares that this is his last year at the school, with very little opportunity to advance any further academically, or to land a job in September? Who really cares, especially when there is an exact replica and ready-made replacement in fourth form, waiting in the wings to take his place in the starting 11 next year? To give thought to those issues only ruins the escapist experience.

PAYING THE PIPER

And herein lies the problem. For many past students and other benevolent benefactors, sports is what keeps their interest and attention on their alma mater. It’s a two-edged sword. On one hand, an interested party is a giving party. But on the other hand, what keeps that party’s interest and drives his giving, is often the same thing that contributes to the school’s academic impoverishment. After all, he who pays the piper still calls the tune.

And so, we will spend and invest and show interest in what gives us a reprieve from the ho-hum of life, not realising the bigger picture that this country’s fortunes rest more on the educated minds of our citizens, and less on the sinewy legs of our athletes. What we need are more or better classrooms, more or better teachers, more or better desks, chairs, books…more reading, more ‘riting, more ‘rithmatic.

And yes, of course, this is primarily the Government’s responsibility. But if we are willing to give the Government a helping hand by bolstering and supporting high-school sports, why can’t we also lend a similar hand to high-school academics? To be fair, some schools and their past students do. Those schools are usually the ones residing in the higher echelons of the annual high-school rankings. The question then arises, about whether we can be great at both sports and academics. Or are these mutually exclusive concepts? That topic is for another day and another time.

DEVELOPING ACADEMIC TALENT

My plea for today is the same one I made last week: that there needs to be a more equitable distribution of past student and benefactor interest and support to their alma mater, beyond their sports teams. Universities overseas raid our high-school talent barn annually, looking for the next Usain Bolt or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. We need them to also look to us as a source of bright, high-valued, in-demand academic minds, to be nurtured and developed into the doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, citizens and leaders that will add value to our country tomorrow.

These are the educational opportunities that will really start to turn this country around in a real and tangible manner.

Major Basil Jarrett is a communications strategist and CEO of Artemis Consulting, a communications consulting firm specialising in crisis communications and reputation management.