The recent news that the cheerleaders team at the of University of Regina was photographed dressed up in absurd and insensitive cowboys and Indian costumes only reconfirms, in my mind, something I have long believed. Universities should end their varsity sports programs. Not least of all because they have become a constant source of distraction and embarrassment.
To be sure, this single event cannot in itself be the grounds for abandoning university sports entirely. It could be an isolated incident. Sadly, this incident is only one in a series of seemingly endless scandals in Canadian university sports.
In March of this year, the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team was suspended after allegations of sexual assault. My own university was embarrassed in a similar way in 2011 when basketball start Phil Nkrumah was charged with assault and other charges after an incident outside a local nightclub. Last November, three players with Université Laval’s celebrated Rouge et Or football team were charged with assault just days after their Vanier Cup victory.
Also last November, the Ryerson hockey team was suspended for drinking on a road trip. And earlier that year, the women’s hockey team at Dalhousie was suspended after a hazing scandal. Indeed, hazing seems to go hand in hand with varsity athletics. In 2012, the Wilfrid Laurier baseball team was suspended following a “dehumanizing” hazing incident, and in December of 2010, St. Thomas University suspended its volleyball team after a hazing party was connected to the death of student Andrew Bartlett. And hazing, in sports, of course, is nothing new.
In June 2012 the University of Waterloo football team was rocked by a steroid scandal: nine players tested positive, and the team was suspended. In fact, doping in Canadian university football is fairly common. According to a CIS report, doping violations in football have been reported every year for the past eight years. And in the past decade, violations have also been reported in Canadian varsity hockey, soccer, volleyball and basketball.
My point is simple: to be an isolated incident, the incident has to be isolated. And when hazing, cheating, and serious allegations of criminal activity happen month after month, year after year at universities across the country – and the examples above are by no means exhaustive – we are not dealing with isolated incidents. We are dealing with an unmistakable pattern.
Of course, sports teams are not the only student organizations where bad behaviour surfaces from time to time. Members of students’ unions, for instance, sometimes behave in embarrassing ways – as when McGill University students insisted one of their executives apologize for so-called micro-aggression and then rescinded their call for that apology. Or worse, when members of the U of Ottawa student union resigned amid accusations that they made sexually graphic remarks about a fellow member of the executive. So why single out sports?
The problem there is that universities need student unions to provide services like tutoring and health plans, and to select students for important committees and boards. Unacceptable incidents should, of course, be prevented whenever possible, and punished appropriately. But we can’t disband student unions.
We can, however, do perfectly well without varsity sports.
We could certainly do without the expense. In 2010-11 alone, Canadian universities spent over $11 million on funding to varsity athletes, about the equivalent of 128 new, full-time professorships, based on average salaries provided by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. And in at least one sport, the CIS is allowing for even larger awards.
And that’s just the cost of scholarships. Coaches are expensive, too (although, to be fair, coach salaries are very low by U.S. standards). In Ontario, where high university salaries must be disclosed, one finds that the coach of Carleton University’s men’s basketball team earned over $150,000 in 2012 – considerably more than the average full professor in Canada, according to the CAUT Almanac. That same year, a coach at McMaster University earned over $120,000. Even at Nipissing University, a small university, the men’s hockey coach netted over $100,000. Their colleagues in B.C. are doing similarly well: the head coach of the Simon Fraser women’s volleyball team made $168,124 in 2012, the basketball coach at UBC earns $126,000 – and so it goes. And these costs are on top of many others – facilities, travel, equipment – all across the country.
The University of Regina has apologized for the insensitive photo. Of course they did. They always do. But the time for apologies is over. It’s time to solve the problem. These cowboys need to ride off into the sunset.
Todd Pettigrew is associate professor of English in the department of languages and letters at Cape Breton University.