ST. CROIX — Education Department officials found themselves on the hot seat over the lack of athletic programs at high schools even while it maintained a Division of Sports and Athletics.
During a recent hearing of the Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks and Recreation held to receive testimony on student athletic development programs and recent sports initiatives, Education officials said they hosted activities dubbed “Combine Bubble,” and “Honoring A Legend Tournament.”
The two activities, officials said, were alternatives to help student athletes after organized sports were curtailed entirely with the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
The committee hearing, which was chaired by Sen. Samuel Carrión, extended an additional two hours as a heated discussion ensued.
During his testimony, Acting Education Commissioner Victor Somme focused on the two activities his agency was able to put together in partnership with the departments of Health and Sports, Parks and Recreation.
He said that Combine Bubble was a weeklong event for 11th and 12th-graders “with the goal of creating video profiles for student athletes to increase their chances for a college scholarship.”
Senators learned, however, that the training took place at the almost-deserted University of Virgin Islands’ campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix. The students were selected by their coaches and were qualified if their grade point averages “met the 70% level.”
Somme said 78 students took part in the November 2020 Combine Bubble that featured both male and female teams in basketball and baseball as well as girls’ softball and co-volleyball. Nine of 78 students, he said, were awarded either a college or university scholarship. Putting on the event cost $107,000, which was split between Sports, Parks and Recreation, Education and Health.
Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger questioned spending $107,000 for nine students to get scholarships. She also expressed displeasure after hearing that video footage of student athletes’ that cost $5,000 was not good enough to be used for their portfolios.
“We keep spending money and nothing is being done. We are training our kids for second class,” she said.
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory agreed.
“We put our children at a disadvantage. That’s why they get only to Benedict College,” she said in reference to some scholarships received this year.
Both Sens. Steven Payne and Janelle Sarauw questioned the process of selecting students for the events. Sarauw said she is a volleyball coach and was never asked to recommend student athletes. Payne complained that no student athletes from St. John were involved.
During his testimony, Vincent Roberts, Sports, Parks and Recreation’s assistant commissioner, praised the Combine Bubble event, noting it was “well put together” and emphasized that student athletes “are students first” and that they did not skip their academic virtual training.
He added that the Honoring the Legend Tournament featured boys’ basketball and girls’ softball, which also focused on “building students’ portfolios.”
A total of 110 students took part in the event with a total cost of $141,000 split between the agencies.
Somme explained that “the sports were chosen because they are low risk and due to their popularity.”
He noted that the inaugural tournament will open a “string of junior varsity and varsity events,” with track and field and cross country planned for August, football in September, volleyball and basketball in the late fall, and soccer in January.
Somme also discussed other sporting events that Education’s Division of Sports and Athletics is working on — a coach training program, a sports equipment inventory system, a student athletes’ tracking system and a “Roadmap to College” brochure that includes recruiting tips and strategies for student athletes.
Lucille Hobson, Interscholastic Athletic Association president for St. Croix, testified that her agency took part in events by assisting private school students with air tickets for interisland travel.
Her St. Thomas-St. John counterpart, Lecia Richmond, said her agency was “not involved in either activity.”
“Why were you not involved,” asked Sen. Carla Joseph, who expressed concerned about disconnect between the agencies.
“It was a fast-moving process — it was less than six weeks,” Roberts responded.
Sen. Dwayne DeGraff, a former tackle football player at Charlotte Amalie High School, asked whether the sport would return soon.
He also asked about insurance for high-risk contact sports as well as new football equipment suitable for times of pandemics.
Somme responded that Education is looking for “more adequate” insurance for football, consulting coaches and seeking the DOH’s approval and added that new equipment is on order from a vendor.
Sarauw, also a former high school athlete, said she was concerned with the lack of proper insurance, noting that the territory has been “blessed” with no catastrophic injuries.
Richmond, who said her organization is working on bringing tackle football back, told Sarauw in response that insurance is one of the reasons her organization has had difficulties participating in tackle football programs. Her agency, she said, has been unable to procure a promoter’s insurance.
“Student insurance is also a problem,” Richmond said.
“So, we are playing sports without adequate coverage,” Sarauw observed.
Roberts said Sports, Parks and Recreation has been working on the issue of insurance for a couple of years, but admitted the problem is not yet resolved.
Insurance coverage plans typically received are between $10,000-$20,000 depending on the situation, but the goal would be to have a $1 million worth insurance for tackle football.
Sarauw said it is extremely important to have the “right people in right positions” and emphasized that IAAs should be taking care of tournaments and leagues and the Education’s Division of Sports and Athletics should concentrate on cultivating student athletes and their development.
Carrión said he expects more accountability from agency directors leading the effort, even if they simply inherited bad practices from their predecessors.