Thursday, May 15, 2008

The edumacation of the CIS

In the spring of 2006 I had a long and wide-ranging conversation with Wilfrid Laurier University athletic director Peter Baxter. Although the purpose of the interview was to gather information for an article I was writing for the St. Catharines Standard analyzing why Brock University doesn’t field a football team (short answer: money), I took the opportunity to pick Baxter’s brain on several topics of interest.

Baxter is a polarizing figure in the world of CIS sport. A few year’s earlier he was the most public face in a battle between the OUA and Canada West football conferences. The fight was about the rules that govern athletic scholarship for CIS schools. The west wanted to open things up to more closely mimic the U.S. system. Ontario favoured a more conservative approach that would see awards capped and tied into academic performance. In the midst of the battle, the OUA threatened to pull out of the CIS if the west’s calls for a wide-open approach were followed. Famously Baxter said that the OUA could pull out and form a league with different scholarship rules like the Ivy League in the U.S. In what’s become a CIS urban legend, Baxter’s words were widely twisted to suggest that he was actually comparing the academic quality of OUA schools to the Ivy League (something only a Queen’s grad would do with a straight face, right Neate?).

As you likely realize, a compromise was eventual found and the OUA remained part of the CIS football umbrella (which was great for Baxter since his Golden Hawks would go on to win a national championship a couple years after the fight). But, the damage was done. Moving forward, Baxter was to become the voice of all those calling for academic purity in CIS sport.

So naturally our conversation that day turned to that very topic. Surprisingly, considering how hard he fought against the NCAA-fication of the CIS, he suggested that there was something the Americans were doing that CIS schools could learn from. Baxter indicated that he was pushing for CIS schools to provide a full disclosure of graduation rates among student-athletes, something the NCAA had been doing for several years.

At the time, he was facing resistance. Again, it was mostly the west that were against the idea (not surprising: I once had a Canada West head coach tell me, without a hint of shame, that there was nothing wrong with giving an athletic award to a student on academic probation ).

Since then something must have changed. Last fall, CIS executive director Marg McGregor told the G&M’s David Naylor that the CIS was “…in the process of doing an actual study on graduation rates among athletes.” Indeed, it’s listed right there on page 5 of the 2007-08 CIS Strategic Plan.

However, it appears that the study is limited in looking at overall graduation rates among CIS athletes as compared to the general population. Expect a self-congratulatory press release sometime soon. It’s clear that true student-athletes are more engaged to their university experience as compared to that depressed kid from your first year dorm that never bathed and listened to Metallica at full volume every night to 4 a.m. There is little doubt that the Trent fencing team hits the books.

What’s needed is a true sport by sport, school by school breakdown. Something with teeth that has the ability to praise schools that are doing a good job and, more importantly, shame those schools that aren’t. Small sports need to be separated from the big three of basketball, hockey and football. If there are problems they will show up there.

Almost every conversation I’ve ever had with western ADs and coaches on this topic has involved me being told that there wasn’t a problem at his or her school—that they were doing a fine job of protecting the academic integrity of their institution and they didn’t need outside hands (especially eastern ones) prying into their business.

If everything is under control it shouldn’t be a problem then for a public institution to release a little data showing that, don’t ya think? Unless, of course, you’d rather not have to explain to that fullback’s parents why 60 per cent of your former players are working at Wal-Mart.


sager said...

Good stuff, D ... another area where the CIS gets a free pass since the media just assumes no one is interested if players graduate. Fans do care.

(All the engineers used to assure me that 60% of Queen's English-lit grads ended up working at Wal-Mart.)

Anonymous said...

It nust be true Neate. I was at Wal-mart this morning to pick up some things for my gartden. All the emplotees were decked out in blue vests with gold and red trim.

sager said...

Yes, but did you ask what they majored in?

Dennis Prouse said...

Full disclosure -- I am another one of those angry Westerners. I have also coached minor football for years, this issue really burns me. For years, we have watched all kinds of talented kids leave for NCAA schools, kids who would have stayed had they been offered a full ride here at home. But no, we can't have those because it would destroy the "academic integrity" of the schools, notwithstanding the absolutely appalling drop out rate of first year students in general.

It just slays me to see so many good kids heading down to NCAA schools when in fact they should be getting a Canadian education at a Canadian university, enriching both themselves and our CIS system. Can you imagine the profile boost CIS hockey would get if they could hand out full ride scholarships and keep those top end 18 year old kids at home instead of watching them go to St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Maine, etc.? The reason why no one cares about CIS hockey right now is that, in many cases, it has become a men's league for 20-something former CHL players. A very good, competitive men's league, no doubt, but a men's league. CIS football would also benefit from having the Canadian kids in NCAA ball come home to play.

By all means, we should see how CIS schools are doing in terms of athletic graduation rates, but while you do that let's make sure we are doing an apples to apples comparison of how they are doing relative to the rest of the student population. And if you want to single out football, which no doubt would have the worst rate, let's recognize that a) football is often taking on some of the tougher academic cases, and b) the raw size of a football team means that you are inevitably going to have more kids coming through who don't make the grade. A basketball team can be a little more choosy, whereas a football team simply needs raw numbers in order to put a team on the field.

John Edwards said...

"Can you imagine the profile boost CIS hockey would get if they could hand out full ride scholarships and keep those top end 18 year old kids at home instead of watching them go to St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Maine, etc.? The reason why no one cares about CIS hockey right now is that, in many cases, it has become a men's league for 20-something former CHL players."

How would that change if CIS schools began offering full rides? Players are still going to use their entire Junior eligibility before going to the CIS - or do you think that players would choose the OUA over the OHL? If all the Canadians playing NCAA hockey "stayed home", they would go to Major Junior, not the CIS.

Thus, the quality of the CHL would go up, the quality of the CJAHL would likely stay the same (they'd lose young players playing for scholarships but gain players dropped by Major Juniors), and the CIS would largely, in my view, be unaffected. They might get a slightly-better class of 21-year-olds.

Hockey is by far the weakest sport to use in this discussion.