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