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Ugly sporting truths Sport scholarships thrive in culture of corruption

Parents enroll their children at their Alma Mater with hope, mixed with nostalgia, that their sons will thrive in a holistic school environment. Parents commit their time, money and effort to facilitate the education process, with the justified expectation that the authorities of the school would fulfill their end of the agreement and provide their child a safe, conducive and stimulating platform to receive the best education and moral grounding while granting equal opportunities to excel in sports related activities, ideally culminating in representing the school at the senior level. However, in most cases, it doesn’t take long for them to realise the futility of this hope.

Avanka Lanka Foundation was approached by a group of parents from a leading school, in response to the article highlighting cruelty to children (published on May 3). Lasantha Mendis and Shanthi Wijesinghe, in their correspondence with these parents, have uncovered the following.

It has been found that boys who represent the schools, in the limelight, especially in cricket, undergo mental trauma. Others become so disillusioned that they become cynical and jaded to the extent that their personalities change, causing much friction and anxiety within their families. This stems from various contemptible malpractices in the sports sector of the school. Sadly the cohort of perpetrators include egotistical leaders, coaches and even some members of the governing body of the school.

Parents have become helpless owing to the lack of any recourse to save their children, as they cannot find any via the school authorities. These parents who reached out to us have hope of garnering public attention regarding the plight of their children.

We interviewed eight parents, whose views will be shared in the following paragraphs.

Excerpts:

1. How do children sign up for sports in school and what features are looked at and by whom?

Students can join whatever sports they are passionate about with the written consent of parents. They are selected following practices and playing in practice matches and are assigned a particular position depending on ability and performance. A parent added, “The school has set up the Cricket Academy, where students are trained by professional coaches and, in addition to the school fees, there is an extra fee for training the selected students at the school Academy. It is these coaches, together with the cricket Advisory Committee, who are in charge of selection.”

Several unscrupulous ‘player agents’ and some masquerading as coaches have been promising admissions to skilled players from other schools guaranteeing them playing slots

2. Are the guidelines for selection clear and adhered to at all levels by everyone concerned?

In cricket, the features looked at when selecting players are their technical ability, physical fitness, ability to play under pressure (especially in match situations), and their ability to be a part of a team and contribute to team effort.

Guidelines are clear and apparent at junior levels, but these guidelines are seemingly disregarded and are not straightforward, as the boys continue to a higher level in sport. The phenomenon of recruiting students from other schools under the guise of awarding Sports Scholarships to underprivileged students from impoverished schools, begins at this level, and boys who have performed consistently from Junior level are cruelly sidelined, wherein lies the main issue.

Parents felt it’s unfair by both students and parents who follow guidelines. Students dedicate their time by giving up other sports and extracurricular activities and some even neglect studies in order to qualify and in the end find their goalposts for selections being shifted.

“Poaching/importing” or recruiting the best players has become a norm. According to the parents, “This is a big racket- where the above-mentioned parties with vested interests have perverted the system for selfish gains. There is an unofficial understanding that up to 2 of the 11 players can be newcomers. However, since this is not an official rule, the allocations have reversed and teams are now almost wholly comprise newly recruited players.”

One parent said, “In the recent past, several unscrupulous ‘player agents’ and some masquerading as coaches have been promising admissions to skilled players from other schools guaranteeing them playing slots while ruthlessly uprooting children, who have been in school right throughout and have played since junior levels. These interfering adults are mostly influential old boys and persons who do not have sons in school. A vast majority of school students, teachers, and parents are totally against this interference”.

This issue highlights how [in this school] 80% of the players on the cricket team were recruited from other schools (purely to represent the school team). From a school comprising 4,000 children, only two or three students (who have played and been around since their young days) are finally selected to represent the First XI team. This has led to several outstanding players, with much potential, leaving school and giving up sports. Parents opine that this unethical practice amounts to exploiting children and repeated complaints have been ignored.

3. Do players from impoverished schools, who are recruited under the guise of “giving them help”, receive worthwhile assistance?

Parents alleged that “the school is only interested in collecting trophies”. Apparently, the boys who are recruited from less affluent schools have no voice when they join, and are under constant pressure to perform, sacrificing everything else, including their studies and mental health.

Another matter of concern is the lack of a Medical Insurance Scheme for these boys, to cover injuries and accidents that occur on the field. Even though they play for the school, there are no regulations in place that ensure that the school will take appropriate action and, most often than not, the injured are forced to seek medical attention at their own expense.

Additionally, parents say when their son is benched for undue periods of time and that there is no system for them to lodge a complaint.

4. What sort of impact does the culture of favouritism and corruption have on students?

While some of the newcomers are very good at the respective sport and worthy of the Scholarship, others are mediocre and/or less than average. In some cases, the recruits do not even know the sport as it was not even played in their former school! Children who have been in school from their primary years then realise that some of the newcomers were admitted to school by corrupt individuals to meet selfish gains. Corruption is seen in the granting of Sports Scholarships. The system is manipulated to give opportunities to individuals who otherwise would not have a chance of enrolling their children in the school and is used as a kickback to win business contracts and even government tenders – the admission of their child to a leading school can in fact be a bribe that a majority cannot resist.

Some parents mentioned that their sons had become disheartened and disillusioned when they were replaced by newcomers who were not as skilled; they felt that all their hard work and sacrifices were in vain; especially since these actions are being taken for the benefit and gain of a few adults rather than for the betterment of the students, the team, or the school. When a child can clearly see the sermons and advice given by the administration are very different to what they put into practice, the image the child has of his school comes crasing down.

Parents allege that “there have been instances where coaches have even visited players’ homes to obtain sexual favours from players’ mothers. When these were brought to light, inquiries were held

5. There is an opinion that boys are strengthened in mind and spirit by way of harsh words and rough treatment. Is harassment due to malpractices no longer recognised as abuse, or is it being accepted as training in endurance?
A parent replied “It is an accepted fact that mental toughness is a key component in child development. However there is a definite boundary between mental toughening and mental trauma”. Parents elaborated that children who are in the team, but don’t get to play, naturally start developing their determination to perform and keep working on their abilities which results in developing mental toughness. However, if the child performs well at practice and matches and then does not play in a tournament because he is victimised it is tantamount to mental harassment.
Another parent opined, “It is unfortunate that although participation in sports is supposed to teach children good values and build character, in reality they are being subjected to emotional anguish and trauma. When the parameters and eligibility criteria are constantly changing, the child loses hope and is disillusioned. Thus, depression sets in and the child loses his self-worth.”

We need to educate parents, children, principals, teachers, coaches, and advisory committees through Print Media, Social Media and through columns such as this of the importance of fighting against mental trauma and the fact that it can cause insurmountable damage to a child.

6. When boys face harassment and experience mental trauma, does the school take the responsibility of sorting out the problem?

Parents allege that several children over the last eight years have been mentally traumatised and driven to depression and the school has not taken any responsibility. They added that the only ‘counseling’ came from the other boys, who listen, encourage, try to pacify and relate their own experiences and offer support, which though very heartening, is woefully insufficient. The Committee and coaches are given a free hand and even the more approachable teachers cannot resolve the problem as they have no authority over the Committee of old boys.

7. It is said that coaches harass and cast derogatory remarks at boys who opt to balance their studies and sports. How true is this?

Parents summarised the situation saying, “Nowadays, it is basically you can choose if you want to do sports or study”. A decade ago a child with a flair to balance studies with sports methodically was considered an “all-rounder”. Unfortunately most coaches at present cannot understand that academics is an imperative aspect in a child’s life”. Coaches are recruited on a fixed-term contract which is renewed annually/bi-annually after the cricket season. The renewal and incentives are based on the teams’ win-loss performance. The more trophies the school wins, the bigger the monetary benefits for the coach.

8. There is speculation that parents, specifically mothers, have been pressured to grant sexual favours to ensure that their son makes the school team. Is there any truth to this?

According to the parents “an environment and power dynamic has been created in which sometimes the only way that parents can secure their son a spot on the team is to either give in to sexual coercion or resort to sexual bribery. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the past few years, but goes back a few decades.

Parents allege that “there have been instances where coaches have even visited players’ homes to obtain sexual favours from players’ mothers. When these were brought to light, inquiries were held with the parties concerned and thereafter everything was swept under the carpet.

There are testimonies of victims of manipulation and mental trauma. In the course of relating this sad state of affairs, a parent spoke of a child who had become an emotional wreck, gave up cricket and left the school consequent to the trauma and mental harassment he underwent by the errant school cricket coaches and the cricket administration. Upon our request we were put in touch with the parents of this boy, whom we will refer to as Parent #7 & #8.

This young boy obtained a Scholarship to enter school at grade 05. He has represented the school cricket team at under 13 to 17 level and was an excellent batsman who excelled academically as well, obtaining 9 A’s at the G.C.E. O/Ls. The traumatic incident took place when he was only 17.

Given his steady, above average performance during the season, the boy was tipped to be in the First XI squad for the annual Big Match as a fresher. Yet he understandably did not get his hopes up as there were several players senior to him. So, at practices leading up to the Big Match the boy was content to remain on the bench. But lo and behold, late evening on the day prior to the Big Match, he received a call informing him that he would open batting the next day!

“Can you imagine the emotional turmoil this boy would have had, when he realised that he had to shoulder the responsibility of opening batsman at this all important match without having any practice for 03 days or so and with no mental preparation? As to who did the selection of the team in such an arbitrary manner, remains a million dollar question”, ponders Parent #8.

As one would envisage, the petrified boy got out for a duck. His poor performance was thereafter held against him and he kept being overlooked and ostracised. According to his parents the harassment their son was put through by the coaches and selectors consequent to Big Match broke the spirit of their son, and he left this school at this juncture. The parents expressed with much sadness that when this child left the authorities were extremely harsh, depriving him of any certificate of recognition with regards to his contribution to sports, even withholding the ‘cricketing uniform’ which players cherish as a souvenir.

The boy joined another leading school in Colombo, but his level of confidence had deteriorated so much that he could not play cricket nor was he able to perform well in the G.C.E.A/L examination.

On a more positive note, the boy is now reading for his degree in a private university and is slowly finding his way back into cricket.

However we must not dehumanise these children by referring to them as “imports” even though it is a common term today. We must also stop vilifying these children and acknowledge that the powers that be who recruit children from underprivileged schools seem to do so with the sole view of them playing cricket and winning matches and don’t seem to be interested in the academic trajectory of the children at all, leave alone their future.
Once these children enter the new school, they should be assessed by the teachers with a view to making them well-rounded students, acquainting them with the ethos, values and traditions of the school and equipping them to be on par with other children: e.g. provide additional tuition including spoken English so that when the child leaves both he and the school are confident that this is a well rounded individual.

Our intention is to bring matters to light by advocating the enactment of legislation to prevent abuse of children.
We wish to draw your attention to the circular issued by the Ministry of Education on the matter of obtaining services of Sports Officials dated 30th June 2009 bearing ref # ED/15/2/3/5 made reference again vide letters dated 06th March 2014 bearing ref # ED/1/15/2/1/gen and 25th January 2021 bearing ref #ED/9/15/2/3/6.
We sincerely believe that in the course of providing sports related extracurricular activities, broad reaching legislation should be enacted to prevent mental trauma, harassment and exploitation of our children, as it is very evident that this “winning at all costs syndrome” takes its toll not only on the “home grown” boys but also on the recruited children.

We appeal to parents to join us to put an end to this menace caused by egocentric Heads of schools, coaches and old boys who want to live out their dreams at the cost of the mental health of our children, especially if your child has or is currently undergoing a similar situation.