Thursday, July 4, 2013

Screening Days

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Thursday, 20 June 2013

In 2001, Danny Almonte became the most dominant pitcher in the history of the Little Leauge World Series. He consistently threw one and two-hit games with record numbers of strikeouts, while guiding his team from the Bronx, NY to the semifinals of that year’s World Series. The story was huge. It was on every sporting network across the nation. Everyone was rooting for this kid to succeed.

But the story of Danny Almonte was too good to be true. Rumors began to surface that Almonte was over the age limit for players eligible to compete in the 2001 Little League World Series. Sure enough, two weeks after that year’s World Series had ended, tournament officials determined that Almonte was 14-years-old—two years above the tournament’s 12-year-old age limit—and had used a falsified birth certificate to help disguise his age.

The story of Danny Almonte’s demise was just as big as the story about his rise to fame. For many people in the United States who so badly wanted to be believers in this young Dominican boy from the Bronx, the Danny Almonte scandal was an unfortunate surprise. As I have found out over the past few days, however, scandals involving young athletes like the one with Danny Almonte are common not only in Cameroon, but all over the world.

This past Tuesday and Thursday, CFDP held “player screening” for players from teams vying to participate in our U-16 Football League for Youth Development. The purpose of “screening” is to determine whether or not players are actually under the age of 16 and eligible to participate in our competition. “Screening” is completely necessary and not as easy as you may think.

Birth certificate fraud is rampant in Cameroon. It’s fair to say that the majority of birth certificates here are inaccurate. Everyone here lies about his or her age, whether it is to gain a physical advantage in sports by competing in a younger age bracket, or to boost one’s chances of getting hired for a competitive job. It’s easy to get away with lying about your age in Cameroon because birth certificates here are very unofficial—Many of them are handwritten on a small piece of paper and don’t even contain a personal photo. It’s extremely easy to “white-out” and rewrite certain information, especially one’s date of birth. Therefore, it’s equally as difficult to prove someone is lying when he tells you how old he is. “Football age” is a phrase sarcastically used by people in Cameroon, which refers to the fact that almost all footballers in Africa are older than they say they really are because they’ve been using a false age to help them gain an advantage in competitions throughout childhood and early in their professional careers.

Given the problems of dishonesty when it comes to “football age,” we had to hire a pair of professional referees to conduct two extensive, all-day “screening” sessions this past week, during which they examined players one-by-one to determine whether or not they were eligible to participate in our league. Because birth certificates are so easily falsified in Cameroon and there really is no way to officially prove someone’s age, the referees have to engage in an extensive one-on-one screening process with each individual player to examine the physical state of the player’s body, as well as interrogate the player about things in his personal life, using his reactions to see if there is any sign of dishonesty. By the end of it all, we had examined close to 500 players, only around 200 of which were age appropriate.

The referees begin by examining the physical state of a player’s body. They look at his chest and calf muscles especially. They also look inside a player’s mouth and count his number of teeth. The physical examination is obviously not foolproof—Not everyone’s body develops at the same rate. Examining one’s teeth, however, normally does give a good indication of whether or not a boy is above the age of 16 because one typically does not grow molars until around the age of 18. If a player has a full set of 32 teeth, the referees become suspicious.

The referees then proceed to interrogate the player being screened about his personal life: “What is your name? What is your age? What year were you born? Where were your born? What is your mother’s name? What school do you attend? What form (grade) are you in?” If a player hesitates when answering questions, it is an indication to the referees that he might be lying. If the referees suspect that a player is lying, they have special techniques of finding out the truth. Often times, when a coach knows that his players are over age limit of 16, because it is 2013, he will tell them, “Just say that you were born in 1997.” So when the referee asks a player of his age, and the player responds immediately by saying, “1997,” rather than the age of 16, it is a clear indication that he might by lying.
Other players weren’t even smart enough to lie. There were countless number of times when the referees would first ask a player his age, at which the player would respond by saying, “15” or “16.” Then, the referees would ask the same player what year he was born, and the player would respond by saying, “1995.” Clearly, the math does not match up—Ha!

As a last resort, the referees would play simple mind games with a player if they thought he was lying about his age but had not succeeded to prove so. The referees would say something to the player like, “Okay, you see all those other players over there? They were rejected because they lied to us about their age. I don’t want to believe that you are a liar. Just tell us the truth and we’ll allow you to play.” Some players actually fell for this and would admit to the referee, “Okay, yeah, I am 18.” They were rejected.

The day was full of emotions for me, ranging from excitement for the competition, to entertainment from the ridiculous lies players tried telling our “screeners,” to exhaustion from the length of time it took to screen all the players, to frustration with all the people who were displaying blatant dishonesty right in front of my face. Here are some of the best stories and most ridiculous lies from the two days:

--One kid showed up with a birth certificate that said he was born in 1989. That means he is older than me. I am 23-years-old, born in 1990. Either this guy didn’t even bother trying to falsify his birth certificate, or it was falsified horribly. He just tried to argue that there was a mistake and that he was really born in 1999—Ha, okay. Obviously, he didn’t pass the screening.

--A man with a goatee showed up and tried to say that he was a 15-years-old boy. Right off the bat, you could tell that this guy was not under the age of 16. But our “screeners” decided to have some fun and ask him a few questions anyway. Here’s a play-by-play of their conversation:

            Screeners: How old are you?
            Man-child: 15.
            Screeners: [Laughing.] Okay, where were you born?
            Man-child: Kumba.
            Screeners: Where do you go to school?
            Man-child: CCAS Kumba.
            Screeners: Who is your principal?
            Man-child: Uh, I forget.
            Screeners: Okay, who is your physical education teacher?
            Man-child: I forget.
Screeners: You go to CCAS Kumba and you don’t even know your physical education teacher? You don’t even know your principal. How do you not know these things?
            Man-child: I don’t go to physical education class.
            Screeners: [Laughing.] Okay, what is your name?
            Man-child: [No response.]

Hahaha—This guy didn’t even know his own name. It’s not because he was stupid; he was using someone else’s birth certificate. As you might have guessed, he did not pass screening.

--One player handed the screeners his birth certificate and proudly told them that he was born in 1997. The screeners looked at the birth certificate and noticed that all the handwriting was consistent, except for the line on which the player’s date of birth was written. Clearly, this player used something like white-out so that he could rewrite the year of his birth before photocopying the birth certificate and bringing it to screening. He was rejected.

--One man showed up with a full beard and a chest covered in hair. No 16-year-old has either of these things.

--One 24-year-old that I play pick-up with on Sundays tried to pass screening for our league. This guy used to play with Kumba Lakers, a semi-professional football club based in Kumba. People around Kumba know him. They know he used to play for Lakers. What the hell was he thinking?

--One coach brought a full team of players that played in a U-18 tournament CFDP hosted last summer. This is a U-16 tournament.

The stories go on and on. At first, it was hilarious to me. I sat right behind the screeners as they worked and got to listen to everything. But towards the end of the second of our two, 10-hour screening days, I was getting annoyed. We are working hard to do an honest, good thing—to help change the lives of young kids in Kumba so that they can make Cameroon a better place in years to come—and here are all these coaches bringing us over-age players who are trying to feed us lies about their ages, identities, etc. This is an enrichment soccer league for young boys aged 16 and below. What kind of 21-year-old wants to hear about life skills topics before each match? What kind of 21-year-old wants to hear about “communication with his parents” before playing soccer? Twenty-one-year-olds already know everything. Someone told me that the players do this just because they want so badly to play soccer, which softened my stance on this whole thing a little bit. I guess I was more upset with the coaches. We have been working hard with them, yet they are still so focused on winning our tournament that they are trying to register players whose ages far exceed our age limit.

In the end, though, the screening was a huge success. The referees we hired to lead the screening were professionals, and it was evident by their work. I am confident that we passed or disqualified players at a 90% success rate, which is actually really good. Still, the screening process was an overall eye-opening experience for me. I knew that people occasionally lied about their age to give them an edge in sports, but I didn’t realize that the problem was this big. Over the past few weeks, they’ve been showing FIFA U-20 and U-21 international competitions on TV in Cameroon and every time I see the players, I feel like they look older than me. After the events I witnessed this past Tuesday and Thursday and the conversations I’ve had with Cameroonians since, I’m beginning to wonder if these “U-20” and U-21” players really might be 23 and 24-years old. “Football age” may be a reality, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s wrong.

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