Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hoserdome: Throwing the book at CIS schools

It's about time someone called out collegiate sports for its excesses.

Not, not the NCAA -- Canadian university sports. Our excesses are those of restraint, modesty, derring-don't and something-for-everyone syndrome.

Since many Canadians keep a handy-dandy mental list of all the horror stories associated with major-college basketball and football in the States that is to be used whenever someone suggests we could or should be more like the NCAA, it's only fair that we should come under the kind of scrutiny, which has come courtesy of B.C. writer Alan Watson.

"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 about "this freak of Canadian nature" (which you can buy here), presuming it's isn't a book-length diatribe, attempts to force some long-standing issues about the CIS on to the frontburner. (Please don't take that as a dig at self-publishing. If Watson failed to find a publisher, even a university press, perhaps that goes to show how little the ivory-tower folk value having a sophisticated dialogue about sports, a topic something people actually care about.)

The article about Watson's book alone draws out a number of our prejudices. You've been there. Someone will argue, or express a wish that 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 evoke those 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.)

At the same time, Our excesses go unchecked. Offering little for the best and brightest -- unless they're a male hockey player, then they only have to move 500 miles from home at age 16 -- should not be seen as perfectly normal in this country. It's unacceptable that anyone of a rational mind doesn't even raise an eyebrow when 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. Of course, if you agree with Watson, you're also ignoring the fact that almost everywhere outside of the U.S. and Canada, professional sports teams pay to raise their future stars instead of co-opting the education system.

(Update: You'd also be ignoring that in many parts of the U.S., educators are having enough trouble keeping high school sports alive.)

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 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. This is the same regal body which lets a baseball bonus baby play football, but considers a kid getting a $60 weekly stipend in the OHL a professional.)

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. A football team could count on getting the same crowd each 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 farther away at a NCAA Division 1 school. The day when someone such as Devoe Joseph chooses to go to the University of Toronto instead of the University of Minnesota is not happening, not in my lifetime.

There are other reasons for our sucktacular Olympic performances beyond Canadian schools having been slow to offer scholarships. Douglas Coupland's line about how, "Aliens assessing the national diet would note that, from a biological standpoint, it is imperative that citizens live on concentrated forms of sugar, carbohydrate, fat and salt," might have something to do with why Canada was shut out in the pool four years ago at the Athens Summer Olympics, for instance.

Watson should get credit for attacking our Canadian mindset, this whole belief that sports is foreign to our culture, head-on. 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 has stepped out for a smoke.)

No one should be closed-minded to thinking we could change. Our university sports are light-years removed from the bizarro world of the NCAA, for good or ill. The CIS has its charms, but it's ignorant to lose sight of what this might be doing to our best and brightest.

(Cross-posted to The CIS Blog.)

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

1 comment:

Mike said...

I want to read this book being quite the frequent contributor to discussions surrounding funding university sports in Canada. I think part of the blame, when comparing us to the States and then other countries around the world, has a lot to do with an identity crisis in our country - are we trying to be American or European or Australian or what?? (Aussies are quite adept at doing sports btw, they do them right in the grassroots and amateur levels that's for sure!)

I think once Canada figures out what it'd rather do, things as a whole will be better served in this country. But as a nation everything about us is a mashed up collection of an odd British/American/French foundation merged with parts from every other culture we've encountered since, and without some solid definition from the ground up no big decisions will really ever be made...and yes, somehow that relates to university funding for sports as well! :)