The schoolboy dilemma


SA Rugby recently published new rules with regards to the contracting and scouting of schoolboys in South Africa, basically drawing a line in the sand and warning unions not to step over it – but should there even be a line in the first place?

The issue surrounding scouting and contracting of schoolboys is not new, there have been loads of articles published exposing one school or the other apparently offering children and even their parents lucrative, underhand deals in exchange for enrolling their children in their schools to enhance their own reputations as traditional sporting powerhouses.

More recently, the issue of Western Province flyhalf and Junior World Cup winner, Handre Pollard, moving to the Bulls next year once matriculated from a Western Cape school raised questions around this practice yet again.  Some sources even suggested Pollard had been receiving ‘pocket money’ from the Bulls since 2010 where he was first identified at the Grant Khomo week for U/16’s.

The question everybody’s asking is what, or when, is it acceptable for unions to start scouting players and ‘invest’ in them if at all?  How far should this investment stretch (what is offered) and who has more ‘rights’ over these kids?

Personally for me there are two sides one can debate this issue – the one is from a rugby perspective and what the best approach would be to develop kids in a professional sport and offer them an opportunity or shot to make a career out of the game, and the second would be to look at the environment this plays out, being schools and what is ethical at this level.

If we consider the rugby argument for this then the situation is pretty clear cut for me.  Any parent and any aspiring young rugby player would want to give themselves the best opportunity to possibly become one of the roughly 400 elite rugby players in this country, and if that means a school or union with a great reputation, great facilities and great coaches and mentors are willing to give them that opportunity, while paying for their school  fees or with some sort of bursary or financial scheme, then the decision is simple and straight forward.

Both sides have a common goal in this situation.  The school (or union who works closely with schools in their jurisdiction or province) is looking to strengthen their own structures or enhance their reputation based on their success in different areas of the organisation, and the kid is looking for a shot at the big time.  The medium both use is the game of rugby, and if both succeed in their respective goals the game of rugby also wins.

But do we really want to trade our kids off like cattle for the highest bidder?  Just what type of generation of citizen and rugby player are we busy creating?

Debating the second point of this argument, morals and ethics, is very difficult because these two things are different from one person to the next, but it is something I value quite highly, and something I do believe we need to guard against.

As a parent myself I believe I will think like many out there, where every single decision I make on the future of my child would always be in his or her best interest.  So when I consider the argument above, the first question I ask is; ‘Am I making this decision to offer my child the best possible future, or have I decided on one for him already?’

It is a very shaky subject I know, but I’d rather be part of a group of individuals that raise our next generation of men and women as responsible, educated citizens first before I raise a rugby player or sports star.

We must also take into consideration the purpose of the environment these young men and women are in.  A school is firstly a place of education where minds and characters of our children are shaped, they are not rugby academies.  It is a place where you must still be allowed to be a child, to have fun, be a free thinker – not indoctrinated into a system where your future can disappear in a blink of an eye through one bad injury or tackle.

Most importantly, if my child ever decides to play the game of rugby at school, I want him to do it because he loves it, and it’s fun – not for the financial or similar benefits that comes with it.

Now before you think I am taking the moral high-ground here let me state clearly that I know of situations and individuals that have benefited from bursaries offered by elite schools not only through sport but education as-well, an opportunity they might never have had if they stayed in a rural or debilitated government run institution.  As much as every parent would love to put their child in the best schools the reality is that not many of them can afford it – in fact, I was a beneficiary of just such a program so I know the value it can add to any child’s life, but those decisions should always be made with education as the primary motivating factor, not sport.

Where does this leave us though?  What should unions and schools be allowed to do or how far should we allow them to go when scouting and recruiting youngsters?

Now I don’t propose to have all the answers but perhaps a few simple guidelines could be followed.

  • Unions should only sponsor, or assist schoolboys through their respective schools and not directly as a union.  These sponsorships should be approved by the school board and parenting bodies of each school.  No union should be allowed to contribute financially or in any other way directly to schoolboys or their parents.
  • Schoolboys should also not be offered sports bursaries, only educational bursaries subject to academic results – whereas if the desired academic result is not achieved the child is not allowed to play any official games for his school.
  • No schoolboy should ever be asked to sign a contract or any undertaking – all contracts, whether that be to a union directly or any affiliated rugby academy or elite institution can only be offered once the child has matriculated – from that moment the child or his parents and guardians have no obligation to any union or benefactor that may have contributed to their education whilst still in school.

I don’t think stopping unions from identifying and nurturing talent at school level is the smartest thing to do, but it should only be allowed to happen through, and in the presence of educational institutions and not the union directly.  Schools in turn should place a premium on education first before extra mural activities such as rugby or any sport come into play.

Hell if it was up to me unions should only be allowed to contract players under 21 years of age from educational institutions like universities or colleges – or if the individual is not studying anywhere his contract with the union should include compulsory studies if only through distance learning institutions! But that’s a story for another day…

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  1. All the fun and games of this thing called proffesional sport code.I can remebr when my son was 7 we ask him want he wants to do when he is older, his answer shocked us when he said:”I want to play rugby and cricket for lots of money and the rest of the time stay with mon and dad and watch TV” although only 7 he thought that is the way of life. Offcourse I told him that it will never happen and if he does decide to do sport prof he will have to work harder than he can every think and that even that will be a sure factor that he will make it. This is just the way kids think and not many will ever get even close to it

  2. Reply to DavidS @ 11:01 am:

    The NFL only contracts out of the college system and then only after 3 years. Players have a maximum of 4 years in the college system and must be full time students with passing grades during this time.

    The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) have very strict amateur rules for the college players. They get scholarships but may not have any outside jobs or receive gifts, entertainment or anything of additional values. Neither to their families. No negotiations or promises from agents either.

    Off course there a lots of rule breakers but the penalties when caught are very stiff. Especially to the college itself. They limit scholarships, which severely weakens the team and thus their fan revenues. They suspend them from bowl games for years, once again with enormous financial consequences for the college. Sometimes they even go back and erase wins from official records.

    A few years ago news emerged that a USC player’s family were living in a house, rent paid by a sports agent for several years, with the understanding that the player will sign with the agent after college. It all came out because the family was evicted when the player reneged on his promise to the agent. The agent had no legal standing and since the player was already pro, The NCAA could do nothing to him. USC however copped it badly. Not knowing was no excuse. There was even talk of removing a national championship from the records.

    After the 3rd year a highly rated player face the choice of entering the NFL draft or staying another year in college. It’s a tough one because the extra year of college experience will probably help him to command a better starting salary in the NFL but there is always the possibility of a career ending injury in that last unpaid year.
    Other positions may be different but from what I’ve seen, most of the high profile quarterbacks that leave early bombs out in the NFL. The extra year is mostly worth the risk, doubly so because you also exit with a degree.

  3. Don’t know much about the high-school system. There is also a maximum of 4 years. Coaches do recruit and parents scout out schools but I’ve never heard of scholarships (at least not at public schools).

    Colleges have extensive recruitment systems. The coach will fly in with a private jet to meet with kids and their parents and sell his team to prospective players . There are loads of promoting the school, the team, promises of playing time and chances of getting into the NFL, but no money or gifts.

  4. Okay now what happens when an oke like say a Joe Van Niekerk comes along?

    As dof as a lamp pole and as talented a player as any ever…

    How does one deal with an oke like that?

    Do they let him study something like medieval dancing styles or some such to let him pass?

  5. Reply to DavidS @ 10:10 am: They give him Wiskunde geletterdheid. Also known as wielietjie wiskunde.

    Yeah the whole contracting of schoolboys is an issue that has been going on for years. I know players from Waterkloof, Menlo Park and one in Affies, that all school fees and kit are paid for by the school. Question is, with it having gone on for as long as it have, will they be able to stop it?

  6. Reply to DavidS @ 10:10 am:

    Some student athletes graduate with real academic degrees and some just graduate. Many drop-out.

    The universities have special courses for the strugglers.
    They also employ normal students as tutors and sometimes even to write papers and take exams – huge scandals and severe penalties resulting.

    The conflict between rules and realities is one of those eternal ones like drugs and prostitution.

    Basketball is most infamous for low academic standards:

    The NBA does not have the 3 years minimum rule. The best players enter straight out of high-school and others go as soon as they can.