Athletics has been a priority at Simon Fraser University ever since it opened in 1965. “University sports will build student loyalty and pre-eminence on a faster basis than you get by turning out graduates,” said the school’s first chancellor, Gordon Shrum, whose name lives on in the annual Shrum Bowl football game between SFU and University of British Columbia.
That vision, together with the close geographical proximity of several American universities in the northwest, led SFU to join the U.S. National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 1969. As a member, too, of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, or CIS, the university has developed a unique dual-track sports program that competes on – and is envied by – campuses on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
So it’s not surprising that SFU is taking a close look at a new pilot project that allows Canadian schools to apply for membership in the second division of the preeminent U.S. inter-collegiate sports league. SFU must decide by June 1 whether to apply to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II, and, if accepted, to begin competing south of the border as early as the 2008-09 academic year.
Under the program, approved at the NCAA’s annual meeting in Nashville in mid-January, Canadian member universities would be able to award U.S.-style, full-cost scholarships to student athletes. That is a major difference with CIS regulations, which stipulate that entering students can only receive an award equivalent to their tuition.
While issues like affiliation, rules, eligibility and logistics involved with cross-border competition still need to be worked out, four Canadian institutions – SFU, UBC, University of Alberta and St. Claire College of Windsor, Ontario – are already reportedly interested in applying to the NCAA because of its less restrictive tuition policy. “The [CIS] caps hinder our efforts to recruit and retain Canada’s top athletes,” said Scott McLean, media relations coordinator for SFU’s recreation and athletics department. “We want to see them removed to even the playing field.”
Marg McGregor, chief executive officer of CIS, the national governing body of university sport in Canada, acknowledged the appeal for some Canadian universities, particularly those in the West, to compete with American teams that are a lot closer to home than their current Canadian opponents. However, she noted that the NCAA-affiliated Pacific West Conference has neither hockey nor rugby. Those sports could find themselves orphaned if Canadian universities that decide to join the NCAA are banned from playing in the CIS – a possibility that Ms. McGregor says the CIS board may consider at its annual meeting in Ottawa in June.
She also called the scholarship issue “a red herring,” adding that the athletic scholarship system in the U.S. is “not as great a deal as it’s cracked up to be.” Ian Newbould, a former president of Mount Allison University, agreed. Dr. Newbould, now president of North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C. – a Division III school – said there is “a big misconception up in Canada that athletes can come to the U.S. and get a big scholarship and all the dough. That is just not the case.”
In terms of both athletic competition and scholarship value, Dr. Newbould said Division II is very similar to the situation in Canada. “The Division II philosophy is to provide partial scholarships to boost enrolment by attracting student athletes who do not go to the big-time Division I schools,” said Dr. Newbould, who attended the NCAA meetings in Nashville. Like in Canada, revenues for Division II sports come from student fees – not TV or gate receipts, as many believe. “Division II is not the big time,” he said, “either by design or outcome.”
Ms. McGregor played down the possibility of defections to the NCAA, saying “the vast majority” of Canadian universities are proud of their CIS membership – a claim she believes will be confirmed by an upcoming member survey. Lorne Adams, director of athletics at Brock University and current president of the Ontario University Athletics association, echoed that sentiment. “We strongly value our membership in CIS,” he said. “We recruit according to our needs to compete in Ontario. We have no interest in playing south of the border.”
While he finds the NCAA program “interesting,” Gilles Lepine, director of the Rouge et Or teams at Université Laval, said that “for now, joining NCAA is not in our plans. Our philosophy is to help develop our athletes in a network of Quebec universities.” In some sports, “I think we’re already at [Division II] caliber,” said Mr. Lepine, referring to the exhibition games that many of his school’s teams play against U.S. teams – and regularly win.