Halting the athlete exodus

Author proposes tax to pay for Canadian athletic scholarships


Every Canadian university sports aficionado is familiar with the picture.A top-notch teenage athlete, excelling in basketball or hockey or any one of several sports, has his pick of universities to attend on a full athletic scholarship.

The university chosen is usually in the United States, not Canada.

For example, dozens of teen-aged Canadian hockey players go to big U.S. universities each year on what are known as “full-ride” scholarships.

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.”

A veteran sports writer, Watson reasons that entirely different views on the value of sports in the two countries go a long way to explain the departure of so many Canadian athletes to the U.S.

“By not developing the system properly here, the U.S. system looks much more appealing purely from the standpoint of competitive athletics,” Watson said.

“Why don’t we offer those full athletic scholarships here? It’s a philosophical mindset imposed on us by the mucky-mucks Down East.”

Watson conducted numerous interviews with Canadian university athletics directors for his book.

He said the Canada West Universities Athletic Association favours full athletic scholarships, while Ontario University Athletics does not. The two are member conferences in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), the national governing body of university sport in Canada.

“The West is all for it,” said Watson. “But that old dumb-jock syndrome has never been erased by the dinosaurs’ minds in the East.”

The Ontario conference has held steadfast in its reluctance to provide full athletic scholarships, Watson said.

“It’s the old British system about sport being for character building. They see scholarships as a professionalization of sport.”

Watson interviewed people who felt that allowing athletic scholarships would lower an institution’s academic standards.

In the U.S., many university sports teams are effectively licences to print money. Top college teams play before tens of thousands of spectators, who pay top dollar to watch the games.

A university sports game in Canada typically draws a few hundred spectators. Raising the money to provide full scholarships is a problem.

“Who is responsible for this mess, this crime of sport neglect?” Watson asks. “We are, all of us, so we must pay.”

Watson puts forward a proposition that might not gain the support he wants: have Canadians pay a small tax that would go towards providing full athletic scholarships.

But Watson isn’t optimistic about the tax idea, or a change in the scholarship philosophy.

“I don’t hold out much hope, quite frankly. CIS hasn’t budged an inch.”

What it comes down to, Watson said, is “Canadians don’t value sport like the Americans do.”

– The Canadian Press

Filed under:

Halting the athlete exodus

  1. Watson’s argument is self-defeating. “Canadians don’t value sport like Americans do.” Exactly. By direct consequence, we should spend less on it than they do. You can’t tax the country just to satisfy your personal preferences.

  2. I wrote a longer reply, but then realized that Andrew summed it up far better than I could.

    Watson’s position only makes sense if you accept at the onset that we should all care more about professional sports. Our nation has different values than the United States, and speaking personally I’m damn glad of that. Our reluctance to support athletic scholarships is a holdover from British values? Well, good! British values underlie a lot of what’s good about our country. I have no desire to adopt American values any more than we already have.

  3. The article’s statement that “In the U.S., many university sports teams are effectively licences to print money” is simply ludicrous.

    For example:
    “The patterns have been clear for some time, to anyone spending even a modicum of time examining the numbers. But a recently released financial survey from the National Collegiate Athletic Association — modified from earlier versions of the report that sometimes obscured the reality — makes abundantly plain that playing big-time college sports is, on balance, a money-losing enterprise. And it is growing increasingly so with each passing year, as expenses accelerate faster than revenues.”

  4. Last year, I interviewed Carl Wieman, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who made the surprising decision to move from the University of Colorado to UBC, and to spend the next few years focussing not on research physics, but on improving undergraduate science education. I asked him why he he picked UBC over a major university in his home country and he listed a couple of reasons — including this surprising answer:

    “One feature I often point out is [UBC’s] football coach gets paid like an assistant professor, not, like, 10 times the university president. People just don’t realize that college athletics at public universities [in the U.S.] has become so dominant that the governing boards, the presidents, are thinking about the success of the football team first and undergraduate education second.
    Q: I hadn’t thought about the fact that college sports might have played into your decision.
    A It’s really so crazy. You go to a U.S. university and you look at what fraction of the governing board time is spent on athletic stuff as opposed to the rest of the university and, you know, it might be 50 per cent.
    Q: And the NCAA recently opened its doors to non-American schools. Some Canadian universities are thinking about joining.
    A: And UBC is one of them. I screamed when I found out!”

    The full Wieman interview is at:

  5. If we as a society are not willing to contribute to our young student athletes then why would we bother with the Olympics, World Championships and Team Canada? A young student athlete spends 12-30 hours a week training, competeing and fundraising, this results in less time for employment and studies. Do we really find this valuless?
    We have an obesity rate of 25 or 30%, perhaps we should look at more sport rather than less? It’s not always a choice of brains or brawn, and I hope my athletic 16 year old doesn’t have to head South for the support needed to get a University Degree and remain competitive.

  6. Canada’s “problem” with University athletics is that nobody really understands the value of what the CIS is trying to do. For example, the University of Waterloo regularily has a dozen engineers on its football team, thats more than the top 40 US Division I teams combined.

    Canada explain your athletic “concept” to your citizens!

    Oh, and lets not forget about the difference in Television money. Do you really think its a national priority to get the CBC to match Notre Dames Billion dollar contract for say, Western Mustangs Football?

    Finally, there hasn’t been “full ride” scholarships in the US since the 1970’s… there’s more I could write but I’m bored, bye.

    Dan Cormier
    Simi Valley,

  7. Thank God for that!
    Universities are not professional sports franchises. End of story. The number and value of scholarships certainly should rise… for whoever deserves them to get an education.


    The suggestion that creating more athletic scholarships will do anything to solve obesity is ludicrous. Giving people who are already fit more money will not do anything about those who aren’t fit.

    I pay $300 in mandatory athletics fees every year at my university, but still have to pay more to access the student fitness centre. Imagine if the hockey team had to fundraise like every other student club… Maybe the financial barrier to going to the gym for those 25-30% could be removed.

  8. I agree with Cameron. The large majority of student fees that pay for sports services should be used for activities in which a majority of students can participate (infrastructure, staffing, and intramural programs), rather than in the interuniversity sport teams. (Or if students are a major contributor to the interuniversity sport teams, at least they should get a free pass to the games.)

    It is a bit ludicrous to see universities seek out private funds for their academic activities, arguing about a lack of funding, and then spend core funding (from grants or student fees) on athletic teams. If anything, let the private donations go to the non-academic activities instead. Elite sport is based on corporate sponsorships anyway.

  9. Quite frankly, Darcie, if your 16 year old wants to compete in sports, it’s not my job or anyone elses’ to make that happen.

Sign in to comment.