Our young men are at risk….” is the eerie message at the beginning of the promotional video for the supposedly ground-breaking initiative by the Trinbagonian government, designed to target unemployed at-risk young men and get them involved in sports programmes that will redirect their lives. Launched in 2012 as the brainchild of Sports Minister Anil Roberts, LifeSport trumpeted all that is positive about the universal mantra of sports uniting people, together with significant financial backing from public funds to make the vision a reality. The video continues, as Roberts surveys his nation with saviour-like concern from upon high, while the fundamental elements of his plan are unveiled. LifeSport will target 1,800 antisocial young males to train in one of the football, cricket or basketball disciplines, while taking part in modules such as Literacy, Numeracy and IT, to develop their life skills. With meals provided, as well as a stipend of US $240.00 per month, the 100 hours per month programme also professed to have partnered with the local universities and training programmes at state boards and agencies. Thus, in the eyes of many, LifeSport’s boasts ticked all the boxes.
Yet, fast forward to 2014, the initiative has been scrapped; the Board from the governing Sportt Company have been fired, the failure of the programme has forced Anil Roberts to resign (or the Prime Minister to enforce his resignation), allegations abound that LifeSport actually funded criminal and terrorist cells in Trinidad and Tobago, one murder has resulted from the fallout and at least US $63 million given to the programme is unaccounted for. The national outcry and furore means that it’s not only those young men at risk, but also the Trinidad and Tobago government, for whom the entire fiasco now weighs heavily around their necks.
In two short years, with annual budget increases of tenfold or more, how did this well intentioned plan descend into a calamity of epic proportions, sullying the good name of sport, while facilitating the murkier elements of society? Truth be told, the answer lies with a combination of mismanagement, lack of infrastructure and inexperience, with the biggest slice of blame attributed to good old corruption.
In a Caribbean region crying out for sports investment from any sector, LifeSport could have been a blueprint for future regional systems designed to match sporting potential with social enhancement, to provide the welcome diversion from the growing criminal lifestyle to which so many of our youth are falling prey. If by “catching them young” it also produced a few world-beaters, the programme would have gone beyond its stated aims. Sport was to be the attraction, drawing in its targeted population, before immersing them in a mandatory curriculum that would produce shining examples for others to follow. Success would breed further success, once the first crop of entrants could complete the course and ideally the positive aura would have attracted investment from private enterprise.
But LifeSport tried to run before it could crawl and this was not part of its coaching agenda. Infrastructure-wise, it was a mess, with few of the centers actually in existence, or badly in need of an upgrade, yet Sportt issued millions of dollars to private companies to carry out teaching (with no physical building in which to do so), they issued maintenance contracts (with no centers to work upon) and practised poor governance that allowed stipend funds to be claimed by multiple ‘ghost’ individuals. Amongst the glee that LifeSport was an answer to social ills, there were no checks and balances, to redress problems if timelines were not met – if indeed the timelines existed in the first place. As such, mis-spending continued unabated. The underworld’s ears perked up at the thought of gaining money without actually committing violent crimes, thus they infiltrated the programme, easily done since LifeSport’s focus was upon the same hotspots in which the criminal element existed. Soon, the feeding at the trough grew, the payments for not actually doing anything also magnified, to the level that people outside of the LifeSport network began to notice, people like the media.
One investigative report created the crack and soon the floodgates opened. Suddenly the bungling state board, Sportt, was in the public domain and leaked reports from anonymous beneficiaries revealed the extent to which they were allowed to take massive public funds by the simplest of methods – one source spoke of the arrangement where he cashed numerous cheques paid to him by Sportt, totalling US $320,000 on the understanding that he would take a 5% cut while the rest was distributed to others, all of whom have yet to do a day’s work for LifeSport. The revelations forced the government to suspend LifeSport, while an audit was commissioned to appease an angry public. Suspension meant a cessation in payments and with the flow of easy money at stake, soon lives were as well.
A LifeSport Director who revealed much to the press was threatened and secured the services of a bodyguard, who was also involved with the programme; the guard was gunned down in his bed a mere four days after the Director’s exposés, while the Director remains in hiding. It seems inconceivable that a sports initiative could create this state of affairs until it is suggested that perhaps LifeSport was not created for its propaganda boasts. How else could a state board in the 21st century sign off millions of dollars in the knowledge that no progress is being made, then do it all again the following month? Was sport funding used as a cover for something sinister, because surely no board can be that inept?
Those funds, implemented correctly, would have done unprecedented good for sport in Trinidad and Tobago. The monies allocated to LifeSport outstrip the budget of all grassroots programmes combined, emphasising the limitations and myopia of targeting only at-risk males. (Surely, some females are at risk too, and also play sport, and perhaps need a useful distraction so as to not succumb to the juvenile pregnancies that plague Trinbagonian underprivileged society with the knock on effect of single parent offspring falling into a life of crime). Certainly, the blinkers were on when the unofficial intonation from Minster Roberts was that his brainchild “will be a lifeline for little black boys.” Selecting participants based on ethnicity, in a diverse population such as Trinidad and Tobago, limited LifeSport’s scope and ability to manifest into a national all-encompassing community-based sporting structure…for the benefit of all. With hindsight – which truly applies in this instance as no one outside of the LifeSport sanctum could have possibly foreseen the outcome – LifeSport should have targeted those at risk initially but have long term plans to expand within each community (with cross community placement, together with leagues to encourage friendly rivalry and erode the borders that foster so much territorial violence). If the programme eventually encompassed all walks of life within a community, it would build bridges up and down the societal ladder, in much the same way as some high school teams eliminate these barriers, albeit for a brief period of time.
Ironically, in June 2014, just as the first leaks began to set the death knell for LifeSport, the community of Crown Trace, north Trinidad, were celebrating a new clubhouse and kit sponsorship courtesy of KIA Motors. Crown Trace, riddled by drugs, teenage pregnancies and crime, was exactly the type of ‘hotspot’ that Roberts’ LifeSport was supposed to help. One determined man, Nicholas Griffith, decided to use the uniting power of football, formed Crown Trace FC and over the past seven years the club blossomed into the type of tight knit community that allows youths (boys AND girls) to eschew the life of crime. The club has provided players of both genders to Trinidad and Tobago’s national squads. Kia took notice through its ‘Power of Football” contest and chose Crown Trace as the winner from all the global entrants, bestowing ample reward. And there wasn’t a single cent of LifeSport involved.
This proves the point that success is not simply about throwing funds at the problem, though the failure of LifeSport is about more than big budgets without the proper infrastructure, which ensured its demise. This saga has more unravelling to occur and even then all will not be exposed, nor those responsible held to account. In this thing that we love called sport, there must be winners and losers; with LifeSport we may not know the former but we certainly know all of the latter.