ONE of the toughest decisions many junior athletes face early in their careers is whether to take a scholarship to continue their athletics and academics at university, or become a professional.
Whether they are making the right decision is again the subject of debate after several high-profile junior athletes recently announced plans for their future.
World U-20 Women's 200m champion Brianna Lyston recently announced that she has accepted a scholarship to attend Louisiana State University this autumn, while Tina Clayton and her twin sister Tia, and Kerrica Hill, three members of Jamaica's Women's U-20 4x100m relay world record holding team, have gone professional (pro).
Popular opinion suggests that going pro at a young age allows junior athletes to maximise on earnings in what is considered a short athletic career, especially as no age restrictions on enrollment means they can go to university after retirement. It seems a fair sentiment to many Jamaicans in the context of the financial constraints faced because of the high cost of living and a lack of employment opportunities, but some members of Jamaica's athletics fraternity disagree.
Danny McFarlane went to University of Oklahoma where he majored in sociology and minored in health and sport sciences before going pro. His athletic career featured a silver medal in the Men's 4x400m relay at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, and silver in the Men's 400m hurdles at the Athens Games in 2004. He is now based in Oklahoma City where he is a mental health technician and a personal speed trainer. He says that furthering one's education before a professional career allows a safety net for athletes.
"Going professional is serious, and we always have to make sure we do it the right way," he told the Jamaica Observer. "I push education first because once you have that education, nobody can take that away from you."
However, he admits that going to school after retirement could work if athletes do proper planning and money management while earning from their contracts.
"I think if they have that resource, they could take the money they're earning and go to school. But make sure that when you take the money, you have some left back to go to school because you can't get a scholarship to compete after going pro."
McFarlane's comments are based on his observation of colleagues who went pro and did not properly prepare for retirement.
"Usually when an athlete goes pro, they don't know when to stop," he says. "They have to take a lot of beating [losses] to stop, and by the time they figure out that their time has already passed, whatever money they have, they've already used it up — unless they do some crazy investment, and sometimes investments go bad."
But McFarlane referenced Hill, a former Hydel High School student, to say that it would be smart to negotiate a deal that allows the athlete to sign a contract to go pro while enrolling in university.
"I don't know the details of her contract but maybe it could be set up in a way that she can go to school and still make money. If I was her parent, that's how I would do it," he said. "I just don't like a young individual going pro early. It's never usually the best decision. If you look at the number of successful athletes, it doesn't work in their favour."
McFarlane's sentiments are shared by athlete manager and agent Cubie Seegobin. He says that education must come first as athletics is not as lucrative a sport as many believe.
"I'm a product of education, and athletes need to have an education to fall back on if they don't make it as a pro," Seegobin said while speaking on Hitz 92 FM's Sports Grill recently.
"There's no money in the sport. Look at what is being spent. If you look at the results of the meets, there's less meets now than there ever was five years ago, than there were two years ago, and there's not the money that people think is in the sport.
"All of these managers that are running around telling athletes and parents the nonsense that they are feeding them, I challenge them to tell me differently."
Seegobin says that many athletes and their parents and guardians make the decision to sign professional contracts without being properly informed about the intricacies of clauses in their contracts. He said this is especially concerning for him when athletes choose to sign these contracts before even finishing secondary education.
"The athletes are being sold a pig in the bag," he said. "How does a 17- or 16-year-old know whether they should turn pro? Who is advising these people? You're going to parents who don't know anything about athletics and are selling them garbage. It's one set of people that are doing it all the time — and they're exploiting people for an economic advantage."
Maurice Wilson is not only a national coach, but also the principal of the G C Foster College of Physical Education and Sport. He agrees with Seegobin, saying that the decision to go pro must be made not just by someone close to the athlete, but more importantly by someone with experience, and in the athlete's best interest.
"They must have the ability to help themselves after their track careers," Wilson told the Observer. "We have seen too many athletes all over the world who would have started early, and in five years they are nowhere to be seen. They must be given the opportunity to put themselves in a position where they can help themselves when their athletic career is over."
Wilson says that the value of a tertiary education before going pro should not be underestimated. He says that education must come first but, like McFarlane, he says athletes can be smart and negotiate deals that allow them to go to university while signing shoe contracts.
"It depends on how accomplished the junior athlete is," he said. "If it's a World Junior champion that has been running consistent times that would put them in the top 20 in the world, or thereabouts, and the sponsor is willing to pay for their schooling at the university or collegiate level, I would support it. If the athlete is not as accomplished, then going to a college or university would be the best option —whether locally or abroad."
Wilson likes the idea of athletes studying in the United States because of the competitive exposure and opportunities available there, especially if it's a full scholarship.
When an athlete accepts an offer from a university, however, there are certain academic standards that must be met by that athlete to maintain the scholarship. But what does that mean for those who may be athletically gifted but struggle academically?
"Those athletes who are not disciplined academically, they must stay in Jamaica and align themselves with institutions that help them to gain practical skills," Wilson said. He mentioned G C Foster College as being the only institution in Jamaica equipped to assist these athletes who are academically and practically inclined. But he says that studying at these institutions must serve as a method of matriculating into university.
"At G C Foster there are a host of other programmes that you can do to be self-sufficient as a citizen and as a human being," he said. "I think we also need to look at the community colleges. They do an excellent job in preparing marginalised persons in society and making them productive citizens."
The Clayton twins, formerly of Edwin Allen High School, have signed shoe contracts with Nike, and will join the MVP Track Club while pursuing studies at the University of Technology, Jamaica, but the details of Hill's contract have not yet been disclosed.