Throwing the book at Canadian schools

"The exodus of Canadian athletes south of the border has long annoyed B.C. writer Alan Watson. In his new book, A-Plus in Disconnect: How Canadian Universities Dropped the Ball, Watson tackles some tough questions:

"Why do Canadian athletes often fail to perform at a high level on the world stage? Why is university sport in Canada so little regarded by spectators? Why do our best young athletes head to the U.S.?

" 'The biggest thing we are lacking is scholarships throughout our university system,' Watson said in an interview. 'There is no depth in the system.' "
Watson's self-published tome, which you can buy here, presuming it's done well and isn't a book-length diatribe, attempts to force some long-standing issues about the CIS on to the frontburner. The article alone draws out a number of our prejudices.

Why is it, when someone says Canadian university sports should be more like the NCAA down in the U.S. -- more professional in outlook, more intense rivalries, more media coverage, the rebuttal almost always will touch on the Big-Time College Sports Horror Stories. Someone will launch into the whole litany of American excesses -- the basketball team with the 0% graduation rate, the "the corrupt grassroots basketball system that typically dices up far more players than it benefits" (Yahoo! Sports, Dec. 6, 2007), the head football coach who makes $2 million a year while his players can't accept someone paying for their meal at Applebee's, schools covering up criminal behaviour, current NFL quarterback Matt Leinart having a course schedule consisting entirely of ballroom dancing during his final semester at USC, and so on and so on. (Then there's all those Dec. 27 bowl games between teams with 6-6 and 7-5 records. That's the worst.)

What about our excesses, though -- restraint, modesty, and last but not least, something-for-everyone syndrome? That should not go unchecked.

Offering little for the best and brightest -- unless they play hockey -- should be seen as perfectly normal. It should be unacceptable that a basketball prodigy such as Toronto's Tristan Thompson has to attend high school in the U.S. to use his gifts, while his peers in hockey such as John Tavares and John McFarland get to stay much closer to home and become household names at age 16. The mere likelihood that only a degenerate hoops nut living in Southern Ontario has even heard of Tristan Thompson, even though he stands to be a future NBA multi-millionaire, kind of makes the argument.

The response is to Watson is fraught with an all-too-Canadian anxiety about abandoning the middle ground. We want the big shiny things but, but, but while keeping it in perspective.

One response is to try and have a few Canadian schools join the NCAA for select program. Let UBC and Simon Fraser be in the Pac-10 for baseball, softball and swimming. A women's hockey team playing out of Calgary (where the national team is based) would probably win the NCAA title inside of five years. There's enough top-end basketball talent in the GTA that a team based at a Toronto university could eventually be competitive in the Big East or Big Ten. (Of course, there's the whole issue of whether athletes getting federal funding would be considered pros by the NCAA.)

A better tomorrow, for this CIS nut, would mean that a basketball team which is used to playing in front of 500 fans on a Saturday night would play in front of 2,000. The football team would get the same crowd every week that it only gets at Homecoming (and in Queen's case, students wouldn't leave at halftime). The CIS website wouldn't be down for an entire weekend, as is the case at this writing. There would be more fans keeping blogs about their teams and more year-round media coverage like the kind Greg Layson in Guelph and Howard Tsumura in Vancouver, among others, offer their readers.

It's moving like molasses in January, but there are stories here and there about a promising high school student-athlete who's getting her/his education paid for in Canada instead of far away at a NCAA Division 1 school. It's far-fetched to believe the day when someone such as Devoe Joseph chooses to go to the University of Toronto instead of the University of Minnesota is going to happen in the next 10 years.

Watson should get credit for attacking our Canadian mindset head-on, even if his remedy, ironically enough, is to "have Canadians pay a small tax that would go towards providing full athletic scholarships." It's not likely to happen. In Ontario, spending on university education has remained flat for more than 25 years, even though enrolment has doubled. (Even the author admits the hope of that happening is slim and none, and slim just stepped out for a smoke.)

The point here is that no one should be closed-minded to thinking it could change. Our university sports are light-years removed from the reality of the NCAA, for good or ill. The CIS has its charms, but it's ignorant to lose sight of what it means to our best and brightest.

(Cross-posted to Out of Left Field.)

Canadian universities stuck with old beliefs, says author (The Canadian Press)
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1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful post, Neate. I knew once I saw "Canadian universities stuck with old beliefs" as a Google Alert that you'd be all over it.

    One line caught my eye from the CP story: "Watson interviewed people who felt that allowing athletic scholarships would lower an institution's academic standards."

    This line of argument has two main components:

    1) "You can't let a bunch of dumb jocks into every school."

    It's true that not every athlete gets fabulous grades. To most of them, going to class is just hoop-jumping, and to some, academics don't matter at all. So? How is that different from non-athletes?

    Scholarships make the difference, I suppose. It does seem unfair that someone who cares about school would have to pay their way if you're giving money to a goaltender who has no intention to graduate.

    Solution: the easy way to deal with that is to have the same (or very close) academic standards for everyone, athlete or no athlete, but that's why the US is more attractive for those who want to turn pro and don't care about graduating.

    I admit this doesn't necessarily help the "keeping our best athletes in Canada" issue, but that's not an issue of scholarships. Attendance for university/amateur sports is pretty low, and the media coverage isn't great.

    This is where writers like Layson and Chad Lucas come in, and hopefully their efforts will reduce the number of people who fill out their March Madness bracket even though they don't know where Gonzaga is, and increase the number of people who can tell you who Dave Smart is.

    2) "They're here to learn, not play sports."

    People who think that probably haven't thought it through. Yes, you can read Kant and Mill or study biochemistry all you want, but if you're looking to hire someone who can deal with egos and interpersonal problems in small-group settings, and has superb time-management skills, you could do worse than interviewing a former varsity athlete.

    So yeah, I'm all for scholarships, given that they actually have reasonable academic requirements attached. (There's that Canadian middle-ground again!) There are already plenty of people at university who shouldn't be there, and 99% of them aren't on any sports team. The few athletes who don't care about school won't make much of a difference.