Soccer: The Full 90 - Challenging the Mandate of the OUA Scholarship Program

From the start of the season to the end, The Full 90 will bring to light some of the challenging issues in CIS soccer in an effort to encourage discussion and debate, of the beautiful game on our campuses, in an open forum.

It’s been three years this fall since Ontario University Athletics decided to begin offering athletic scholarships of up to $3,500 to students who get at least an 80% average in High School.

The decision, although pathetically long overdue, was nonetheless adopted with fanfare among the student-athlete body.

The reasoning behind the decision was simple enough; Canadian athletes were snubbing Canadian schools who did not offer enough financial aid in favour of American schools that handed out financial assistance like it was their day job…which I suppose it actually sort of is.

In addition, Ontario universities feared that incoming students would begin selecting schools based on the financial assistance provided instead of the academic excellence of the university and would begin enrolling at schools out west or east.

However, judging the success of the initiative is not so simple. It was an initiative undertaken to level the playing field between Canadian schools and American schools as well as keep Ontario a competitive destination nationally for their best and brightest student-athletes.

Yet what some believe is that it has had the complete opposite effect within Ontario and has unbalanced the playing field of many major sports such as soccer.

This fall is the first season in which many student-athletes, which have taken advantage of the new scholarship structure, have become leaders and seniors on their teams. The majority of the rosters are comprised of players who have been brought in under these new rules and as such perhaps now, three years later, is a reasonable time to take a first-look at how effective the new structure has been.

While talking to various coaches within the soccer sphere of the OUA one thing has become clear; there is no consensus on the effectiveness of the program. Some coaches have benefited, others have not-yet remain unconcerned, while others are claiming that their program is now at a disadvantage.

The latter complain that this program only serves to benefit the large, rich schools that can afford to dole out money and not suffer any damaging repercussions to their budget. While small schools in Ontario are walking a fine line and in some cases have been forced to cut staff and sports, the larger more omnipresent schools have a much larger buffer to protect their bottom line.

The former say that it shouldn’t be the mandate of a smaller school to concentrate money into athletic programs and that in times of tight purse strings their money should be going to more academic pursuits and projects. The obvious flaw in logic here is that there is a direct correlation with academics and athletics; one simply cannot be a student-athlete without first being a student.

Soccer is a bellwether sport in the CIS; not significant enough to be immune to the fluctuations in financing yet not insignificant enough to be refused a seat at the table during negotiations. It is an efficient barometer for the tweener sports in the CIS yet is also a sport on the rise in terms of training and producing talent and graduating those talented players to the professional leagues.

Coaches are also wary of losing the parity that is a hallmark of CIS soccer. All of football, hockey, and basketball - the three premier sports in the CIS - have suffered at the hands of powerful programs like Laval, UNB, and Carleton respectively. While those schools have no problems with the system, practically every other student body becomes disenfranchised from following and supporting their varsity teams because they honestly believe their school has no shot at glory.

Can you ever see the Guelph Gryphons winning a Vanier Cup? Could you see the Windsor Lancers winning a University Cup? Could you see the Waterloo Warriors winning the Final 8? I believe all of us can honestly answer "no" to each of those.

Could you see any of those programs winning a CIS Soccer Championship? I believe all of us can honestly answer "maybe" or “yes” to each of them.

In each of the last two National Championships, a team from the OUA has earned a berth despite being severely under skilled and over matched. Both Laurier and McMaster had unforgettable runs to the Championship weekend and during those weekends, Laurier lost 1-0 to a Trinity Western team that lost to York in the final, and McMaster lost 1-0 on penalties to a McGill team that lost to Laval in the final.

Clearly parity and quality can be found from the top of the OUA to the bottom, but can the same be said of the other three major sports?

However, how much longer can we claim parity in soccer?

Even though it is still in its infancy, I believe, from talking to various student athletes at my school as well as staff, that this scholarship initiative will be resoundingly effective in retaining top Canadian talent, producing more skilled and successful athletes, and of course making University more financially viable for student-athletes.

However, after seeing what influxes of money and funding have done to football, hockey, and basketball in the CIS I am of the opinion that I do not want to see any future initiatives move the culture of CIS sport closer to that of the NCAA or professional leagues and I believe our culture and authenticity of sport is at risk.

What we have right now is something special.

Soccer at the University level is one of the last bastions of sport where hope, optimism, and the belief that the impossible is always possible, still reign in the hearts of its fans.

The same cannot be said of other sports. U of T football fans know when anyone but York comes to Varsity Stadium there will likely be an “L” beside the Varsity Blues in the boxscore. One of the quintessential aspects of sport is the unexpected and the upset because it is those moments that provide us with our childhood memories and our stories when we are older.

The entertainment that sport is supposed to provide has been diluted.

University soccer is a sport driven not by money but by young people who walk onto the field with little more than the numbers on their chest and fire in their hearts, and when you have that, anything often happens.

I point this out because I wonder at what point does this quixotic pursuit of pseudo-professionalism in University sport begin to rend and tear the very spirit of the sport out of it.

Student-athletes on a varsity soccer team in Canada are not playing for a career; they play for memories, the love of the game, and glory for their school. For most of them their time wearing their school’s crest will be the highlight and the pinnacle of their athletic careers.

In closing, ask yourself a question; why do you love sports? Do your answers fall in line with what the athletic scholarships are trying to accomplish? Or do your answers fall in line with what student-athletes are trying to accomplish?

Are we losing what we love about our sports?
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  1. I would like to make a note, that some of this article is certainly more romantic than most writing seen here on the CIS Blog.

    The Full 90 will be a weekly national column for CIS soccer, to my knowledge it will be the first in history.

    I do not want to re-iterate box scores and game recaps, or preview upcoming games. I would prefer to make atleast one person reading my entries to think about a topic rather than simply read it.

    I also honestly believe that CIS soccer is far and away the most compelling sport at the university level to write on, it is a terrific vehicle for writing given its position as a tweener sport here yet the most popular sport in the world. Not to mention the obvious rise in popularity that is inevitable once Vancouver, Montreal, and Ottawa join the MLS.

    There are very interesting, romantic, and furstrating stories to be found in the CIS soccer sphere, and all i want to do is open up discussion on them. Hopefully our loyal readers will be open to that.


  2. While I can relate to, and appreciate, your obvious passion for the game and what it offers the CIS sports scene, I believe continuing to offer scholarships is the only way to see the sport grow. I love the sport for the sport itself, but I would also love to see the sport be recognized as one worthy of additional funding and recognition. Whether or not you agree with it on principle, dollars associated with a sport denote legitimacy, where that sport falls on the school's depth chart, so to speak. Sure the league's parity is nice, but losing good players to the U.S. significantly hurts Canadian programs, and in my mind, is worth a more predictable championship season. There's no question smaller schools with lower budgets suffer, but something's gotta give on this one, and athletes can take that into consideration when choosing which school to play at.

  3. I would rather see student-athletes, and students in general, strive for excellence instead of mediocrity. We can't have everything in life so we have to set priorities, just as schools do. It is not just the case in the CIS - UConn might be a basketball power but they suck at Div I hockey, as does football power Ohio State.

    For example, medium sized UNB has set their priorities. Men's hockey succeeds. Women's v-ball is somewhat of a regional power. Men's soccer is competitive regionally. Women's soccer and the two b-ball teams are rebuilding. And yes, for budgetary reasons the barely competitive women's hockey program got dropped to club status a few years ago. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions, and that might be a life lesson in itself.

    The scholarship genie is out of the bottle. Sorry Luke, either the OUA schools man up or accept mediocrity. You can't expect the rest of the CIS to turn back now.

  4. Thanks Kenny and David for your comments, i suppose thinking on this subject more i wonder at what point should funding be capped?

    At what point does the money coming in begin to morph the sport into some sort of monster.

    Also, as i've become increasingly involved with the University sports scene, through the CIS Blog, Laurier Athletics, and 3 years at The Cord, i'm trying to figure out at what point we decided that all of our sports should, ideally, be professional feeder leagues.

    Why can't sport just be sport and not business? I'm not any more interested in Golden Hawks football simply because some of the guys i watch might and have played in the CFL.

    Is it that we relate professionalism with entertainment? And a more professional product is more entertaining?

    Personally i believe the most entertaining hockey in the world is played at the CHL level, even then only 2 or 3 kids (on the good teams) will go on to the NHL.

    David, so you would like to see schools focus on a few sports rather than spread the wealth around and try to be good at everything? I agree, but i get frustrated when Western for example seems to be great at everything, and my Hawks settle for 2nd place in almost everything haha...except curling, we rock that for sure ;)

    (pun intended)

    I guess what i would ask both of you is this, is there a point at which we begin to sacrifice the culture of Canadian sport in favour of money and profile.

  5. Hey Luke - enjoyed the article but I have to say I along with the other commentors disagree. Sure maybe there is something to be said about enjoying CIS Soccer for the purpose of watching good, entertaining soccer but I think all CIS sports have a responsibility to develop Canadian athletes. Especially at the soccer level where down in the NCAA the league feeds right into the MLS.

    If you want the best product on the field you want the best players which will draw the best crowds. You want the big teams IMO. In a league of complete parity without the big players you don't get the romantic upsets, you don't get the "big game" exposure. There is a push among all CIS sports to get that MSM exposure. Soccer has absolutely none at the moment. The scholarship program should help that.

    I'm a big fan of CIS Sports in general, but I'm a bigger Canadian soccer fan. So for me the product on the pitch needs to get better.

    Anyways looking forward to some more soccer writing here on the CIS Blog!!!

  6. Never thought of that point before Sam, that parity cannot exist WITHOUT a big program or unbeaten teams. If everyone is tied at the top of the standings, there cannot be such a thing as an upset.

  7. Don't get me wrong, I think every school's sport should be "the best they can be". Varsity sports is about winning, and determining the best athlete or team. In theory everyone wins by pushing themselves to their full potential to win. You know ... no pain, no gain. But there are only so many resources to go around. We can't all be McGill who is in every varsity sport in the CIS. So you pick your spots. For example, there are lots of former star junior curlers at UNB (to follow on Luke's example), but UNB doesn't have the resources (or desire) to make it a varsity sport. Would be nice, but no money (since there isn't a "free" on-campus curling rink).

    If you want sport just for the pleasure of "play" than that is what intramural sports are for (although they can be competitive too).

    Canada was the bronze medal champions of the world, happy to recognize personal bests as ultimate achievement, until self-driven athletes like Donovan Bailey started winning gold medals and setting world records. Now we see the evolution to programs for AMATEUR athletes like Own the Podium, which target sports that Canada has a reasonable chance to be good at. Those resources (coaching, facility time, etc.) proved to be a success for sports like bobsled, but didn't help out the ski team. That's the way it goes sometimes.

    So what am I trying to say? Like Sam says, if you want the CIS to develop elite soccer players in Canada, then you need to find the resources to match the top NCAA programs. Obviously most CIS schools can't do that. Some might. They will attract the best players, and hopefully those student-athletes will fulfill their potential. Those schools who can't attract those recruits will be less competitive. That's life.

    Sport shouldn't be some socialist ideal where every team is tied for first place. Someone has to be the winner. The only way you can have strong competition and parity is if everyone has the same resources to spend, and has coaches and support staff of equal quality. Well, everyone is the CIS is allowed the same number of scholarships (AFA's), but they obviously aren't maxing them out.

    I know I'm running on, but I'll give you a final example. The strongest hockey conference in the CIS? The AUS. Where the teams spend close to the same amount of money each year on AFA's, and much more than most hockey schools in the OUA. Where just about any team can beat any other team. Like 27-1 UNB getting upset by StFX in the playoffs. In my mind AUS hockey is the most exciting hockey to watch in Canada. What's not too like?

  8. Yes Luke, if the pot of money isn't large enough to do everything, I think athletic programs should put the money where they can get the most success. This is the same way the Own the Podium program worked for the Olympics. Not every Canadian winter sport program got the same amount of money, and there was some griping about that, but you can't argue with success -- Canada won more gold medals than anyone else.

    In the case of UNB Varsity Athletics, they decided to funnel their limited resources into sports that were traditionally important to the school AND there was a potential to be regionally and nationally competitive.

  9. Very salient points David, maybe im just a victim of my age and relative inexperience, i still cling to a romantic vision of sports.

  10. Regardless, i think we can all agree this is a substantive and constructive discussion, i'm glad i brought my opinions and have had open minded colleagues to discuss it with.

  11. Nothing wrong with romantic visions of sports.

    But if the ultimate goal is to have the best soccer-playing student athletes stay in Canada, then you have to offer the scholarships (to defray their education costs) and the provide the coaching and other resources to encourage them to stay home and achieve their goals.