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  • Reeve Batstone

SFU Fumbles

What do former Argos players Dan Ferrone, Spencer Watt, Dan Rashovich, Dan Huculack, Lyall Wozneszensky, Nick Bastaja, Morris Zubkewich, Justin Herdman, Stewart Francis, Tony Antunovoic, former Argo coach Jacques Chapdelaine and Argo draft picks: Tore Corrado, Anthony Deleauriers, Brandon Mahoney, Angus Reid, Bruce Dickson, Roger Dietrich, Chris Mumford, Grant Donohue, Stephen Delcol, Ronald Engleson, Hazen Carinci, Phil Jones, Tim Jones (x2), and Peter Racey, all have in common?

Answer: they all played football for Simon Fraser University. That's right, the Argos have drafted an impressive 25 players from SFU since 1969. Dan Ferrone and Nick Bastaja are two of the finest offensive linemen who have ever played for the Argos. Both are in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

Not since Leon McQuay fumbled on the six-yard line has there been such a high-profile fumble on the wet coast. This time, however, it wasn't in Empire stadium but atop Burnaby Mountain, the home of Simon Fraser University.

The Mess on the Mountain

By now, any fan of Canadian football knows about the capricious cancellation of the SFU football program out on the left coast. Much has been written, and while the search for answers and accountability from the SFU Athletic Director, President, and Board of the University continues, there are a few issues and questions which have not been discussed publicly and others that are very notable.

Amar Doman, the owner of the BC Lions, and Jim Mullin, President of Football Canada have been magnificent as articulate champions, if not saviours, of Canadian football. Honourable mention goes to Randy Ambrosie. It would seem plausible that Amar Doman played an influential role in securing Ambroisie's public advocacy. Doman and Mullin have been flawlessly on point in their discerning observations and measured enough in their words to allow the university administration an “off ramp”. Within hours of SFU Provost, Wade Parkhouse, and Athletic Director, Theresa Hanson, announcing the cancellation of the program in a meeting with players, a video of the meeting had gone viral among Canadian university administrators and coaches as an example of how not to handle closed door decisions and communications with students, alumni and donors. Reports of shocked SFU fundraising and development staff blindsided by their employers’ decision also quickly made the rounds. It has become a public relations disaster of epic proportions.

Even if you agreed with the decision to close the program, the timing and manner of its execution was cruel and tone deaf. SFU could have played another season in the Lone Star Conference and made an application to U SPORTS for the 2024 season. There was certainly no reason to announce this decision on the eve of final exams. It was a decision of colossal ineptitude.

SFU and its football program were founded in 1965. It was one of many "red brick" universities which were built to educate baby boomer Canadians after the war. Ontario examples include Trent, Brock, Wilfrid Laurier, York, Laurentian and Lakehead. SFU wanted to differentiate itself from UBC and joined the NAIA for athletics. This made it the only university in Canada to offer athletic scholarships and gave it an immediate competitive recruiting advantage against CIAU (later CIS and now U SPORTS) schools which did not offer them. This lasted many years, however, the day that U SPORTS permitted partial athletic scholarships meant that the SFU's days in an American conference were numbered. Their recruiting advantage was lost, and in order to remain competitive in recruiting many of the best Canadian high school football players, they had to substantially increase their budget. This never happened and the program stopped being competitive. They did not have enough budget to hire top coaches, and turnover ensued (Jacques Chapdelaine spent less than a year there, 2014, while posting a 2-9 record as head coach). If the top BC high school players don't go to NCAA DIV I, they now go to UBC or leave the province to play at top U SPORTS teams at Western, Queen's and even the Varsity Blues.

At the time of cancellation, the SFU team had a roster made up of 30-40% American students. This reality was one of the reasons why the University jettisoned its nod to its Scottish Heritage and sacrificed, on the altar of political correctness, its name (changed from Clan to the Red Leafs). American recruits associated Clan with the racist imagery of the Klan (as in Ku Klux Klan) even though the cultural histories were completely different.

The DiV II in the NCAA permits 36 football scholarships, and at the time of cancellation SFU had approximately 20. The question remains, what will happen to these endowed scholarships which were funded by donors who supported SFU football?

Additionally, SFU just built a new $20 million stadium ($10 M from the university and $10M from students) which includes an American sized field surrounded by a track. If sanity prevails and they do join U SPORTS in 2024 or 2025, can it be reconfigured to the larger Canadian field? What was the university leadership thinking?

Other sports teams at SFU have remained conspicuously silent in not offering public support for the football team. (Coincidentally, the SFU Athletic Director, Theresa Hanson, is married to Kevin Hanson the decorated men's basketball coach at UBC). It stands to reason as no sports at SFU generate a profit. They are all cost centres, but football has the largest budget by far. Its budget will likely be distributed across the other sports upon its disappearance. Do all other sports stand to gain funding with the football program gone?

SFU Appoints a Special Rapporteur!

Feeling the heat of public and alumni indignation last week, the University took a page out of the Prime Minister's playbook and appointed a special investigator who has been asked to report with recommendations in six months. Seriously, I am not making this up! This is a classic slow walk to make recommendations after the Lone Star Conference season in the NCAA II is already underway. The University budget year begins July 1st. The entire football staff will receive notice long before then and the players are looking for new teams now, but long after scholarships have been offered and accepted elsewhere. This ship has sailed and the disingenuity just keeps coming.

In the background is the issue of gender equity in athletic scholarships. Universities strive to offer the same number of athletic scholarships to women. Cancelling the all-male football program, without something like a commensurate women’s football team, releases pressure on other men’s sports teams at SFU. The university maintains that the decision was not based on money. That's really hard to swallow. Everyone knows that the SFU football program was grossly underfunded and consequently unable to be competitive in the NCAA. There is a reason why Laval University is the winningest football program in Canada over the last 25 years. It has the largest budget in the country and is run like a business, routinely attracting between 10,000 and 19,000 fans per home game.

SFU has sabotaged its football team and players and is facing major reputational damage. What student athlete would trust a university which so openly treats its teams and students with such contempt?

The decision also begs a question about the governance of the University and its relationship to government. A high proportion of the Board members were appointed by Order-in-Council. The Chancellor of SFU is Tamara Vrooman, the CEO of Vancouver Airport (YVR). She has a reputation to lose. Does government really endorse this cavalier treatment of young men? A lot of SFU alumni and supporters of Canadian football hope not.

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