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?