There's been much debate over the past few weeks about high ambition and high performance in Sydney GPS school sport. It reached a peak with accusations of undermining of the spirit of the competition by one school in reference to a basketball team of scholarship imports from Scots College.
This topic is not confined to Sydney schools either, and, like much conflict, the debate is polarised, with those in favour arguing it's a legitimate pursuit of excellence, and those against decrying it as a shameless pursuit of premierships and prestige. Like most things in life, the solution is not simply a convenient "yes" or "no".
At the centre of the debate is the pursuit of a win at any cost regime. This is troublesome at any level of sport but totally unacceptable at schoolboy level where the objectives should be focused on inclusion, participation and character development as much as they should be on winning.
In the pursuit of excellence, ambition can be blinding, however, and can often conceal good and proper judgment.
There are two recurring themes in this debate and both require such discernment by good people. One is the legitimacy of sporting scholarships and the other is the role and extent of sports science, manifested through supplements and facilities, in school sports.
Sporting scholarships, for mine, are just as relevant and acceptable as academic or other specialised scholarships.
One of the primary functions of a school is to facilitate opportunities for the breadth of its students.
The GPS schools, as is the case in many other private and public schools, do this exceptionally well across a wonderful range of endeavour. As a result, each student can feel worthwhile and confident celebrating their difference rather than uncomfortably conforming to a popular norm.
In making it cool to strive for excellence it's often useful to have a role model and attracting some exceptional talents across a range of endeavours raises the standard of practice within the school.
If conducted in a balanced and fair manner by dedicated recipients, this can actually increase the richness of all students' curricular or co-curricular activity. Granted, it can also be disappointing for those students who may have had "their" spot taken.
But life doesn't stop to give everyone a turn, not at school and certainly not afterwards.
I support a solution where a contained number of sporting scholarships are acceptable, especially where they provide students who, through lack of means or opportunity, may not be able to attend such a school (and we are not just talking about GPS schools either).
It's difficult to begrudge anyone that.
The scholarship issue is sometimes clouded when some of the most worthwhile recipients from a hardship or means perspective, like those from the indigenous and Islander communities, hail from such a fertile pool of young athletes.
The important distinction is that the school must not use the student for their own ends but provide genuine academic and cultural support to ensure the individual's long-term maturation into a well-rounded, respectable young adult.
It has been done really well and very poorly. When whole teams are filled with imports, parachuted in for their last couple of years of school to win premierships, it doesn't pass the "reasonable" test.
On the topic of supplements and sports science, there needs to be very clear and transparent guidelines.
Ambitious and impressionable young men will seek the edge of performance, either for ambition or body image, and they prove time and again vulnerable to making poor decisions. In Brisbane private schools this year, students have been expelled for the use and supply of steroids.
When these poor decisions are facilitated by those entrusted with their care it is trouble. I am not aware of any poor such leadership within school sports programs but school communities must stay vigilant as aspiration can blur responsibility vis-a-vis Essendon, where lofty ambition clouded the lines of accountability, transparency and good judgment.
At the same time, while governance is required, it is dangerous to suppress fair and honest pursuit of high performance as it may, even if unintentionally, mandate mediocrity.
Hence, if some school communities choose to devote a large amount of resource and effort into providing an environment for excellence through facilities, coaches or specialised programs, whether in sport, drama, academia, chess or draughts, as long as it is ethical and not at the expense of the safety or the development of the whole person, it should be applauded and not derided.
But the onus remains on the school and its appointed leaders to understand the known, and potential, physical and mental side effects of their program and make decisions in their participants' best interests.
At all times, they must remain vigilant on whether an individual becomes mentally reliant on a product or environment as, in time, that reliance may lead them to seek more and more powerful, and potentially, more and more dangerous, supplements or environments.
It's a thin end of a potentially lethal wedge.
In short, supplements, both health and scholarship, physical and environmental, should be exactly that, a supplement to the overall endeavour and not the main fare.