The University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University have each begun an in-house consultation process that could lead them to becoming the first Canadian universities to apply for membership in Division II of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the major American intercollegiate sports association.
The process is being watched anxiously by Canada’s comparable organization, Canadian Interuniversity Sport, which is planning a special meeting next spring to address the issue.
The NCAA recently created a 10-year pilot program under which Canadian universities would be allowed to apply for membership in the association’s Division II, the intermediate tier of its university affiliates.
Every year during the course of the pilot program, universities may apply to join. No Canadian schools applied by June 1, 2008, the first deadline for applications.
But Stacey Osburn, an Indianapolis-based spokeswoman for the NCAA, said the organization received inquiries from five Canadian schools. She wouldn’t name them because, she said, some of them didn’t want to publicize their interest.
However, both UBC and SFU have been open about their interest in joining the NCAA and both have begun public consultations in anticipation of the next deadline for applications, June 1, 2009.
Scholarships and competition at issue
Bob Philip, UBC’s director of athletics, said the biggest potential advantage of NCAA membership for Canadian schools centres on scholarship policies, which has long been a divisive issue among institutional members of the CIS.
The value of athletic scholarships in Canada is limited to the cost of tuition, while NCAA rules allow scholarships to cover not only tuition but housing and other costs.
That extra money can make U.S. schools attractive to Canadian athletes, he said. “We felt Canadian schools should be able to compete with American schools for top athletes.”
Mr. Philip said NCAA membership would also improve the quality of competition for UBC athletes by giving them more options for playing universities of equal size instead of smaller Canadian rivals.
“There are more and more schools joining CIS,” he said, noting that in B.C. alone, six small new universities have recently been created. “You are getting a big disparity in size between some of the schools. … Some universities want to play ‘like’ versus ‘like’.”
The situation is somewhat different at SFU, a university that’s already a member of both CIS and the U.S.-based National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (or NAIA).
Scott McLean, the sports information director at SFU, explained that the university plays some sports in the NAIA and others as a member of CIS. However, a few years ago “a lot of our traditional rivals moved from the NAIA to the NCAA, which is why SFU wanted to make the move to the NCAA.”
Simon Fraser University applied for membership in the NCAA before the association created its pilot project and was turned down.
“We’re looking to find the best experience for our student athletes,” continued Mr. McLean. “And that’s what the NCAA would provide.” Like Mr. Philip, he mentioned the attractiveness of the “full-ride” scholarship.
While he acknowledged that there’s more scholarship money available for teams in the NCAA’s premier Division I, he said that Division II still allows better scholarships than does CIS.
Marg McGregor, CIS chief executive officer, was to travel to Vancouver in October to meet with the presidents of Simon Fraser and UBC to better understand their interest in the NCAA.
“CIS is interested in gaining a deeper appreciation and understanding of why two of our members would seek membership in another organization, and to make the university presidents aware of what CIS is doing to become a more vibrant organization,” she said.
“Most of the universities I speak to value their membership in a strong national organization and believe CIS delivers great value. We have made progress towards offering scholarships that encourage students to stay within Canada.”
NCAA membership was a topic of discussion at the CIS annual general meeting in Ottawa in June. It was decided to hold a special meeting – probably in April 2009 – to work out a policy on the issue. Ms. McGregor said members could decide to allow dual membership, or they could force schools to choose between CIS and NCAA.
There are several roadblocks to NCAA membership for Canadian universities.
For example, said Mr. McLean of SFU, there is no Division II hockey in the NCAA; the sport is played only in Divisions I and III. Also, NCAA rules require that its member institutions be accredited academically in the United States.
Ms. Osburn of the NCAA said the organization is doing what it can to smooth the path for eventual Canadian members.
“We have a membership committee that is taking a hard look at what are the roadblocks and challenges for Canadian institutions to being an active part of Division II,” she said, adding that the NCAA will try to find ways of overcoming any challenges that are identified.