Controversy is brewing at McGill University after the university stripped 20 teams of their varsity status. While the decision was made last spring, it’s only now coming to a head. The decision means that instead of receiving funding from the school students now have to pay to play. These teams have also lost access to one of McGill’s gyms. High profile sports like hockey and football were spared. The decision came after $147,000 was cut from the athletics department’s budget.
The teams stripped of their status include cheerleading, men’s volleyball, figure skating, sailing, wrestling, women’s lacrosse and fencing. McGill also says the decision was made because some of the teams, like women’s lacrosse and fencing, are the only ones in the province. But students who want to participate in these teams say that without the varsity funding they no longer have the money to travel to Ontario or the United States to compete.
But how important are sports to modern Canadian universities and university life?
Varsity sports are often touted as a way to boost a schools profile and school pride, but the fact is most students are indifferent to even high profile teams. According to CBC, McGill’s highest profile sport, football, only draws around 1,000 spectators per game, and that’s at a school with over 30,000 students and attendance is dropping, though the team’s dismal record and a hazing scandal that saw the team lose its entire 2005-2006 season may have something to do with it.
In a competitive university environment prospective students care less about a university’s athletic success than its academic success. When students do care about athletics their more concerned about the quality of a school gym where they can exercise.
Now this may not be the case everywhere, Université Laval whose Rouge et Or football team has won the Vanier Cup (Canada’s football chapionship) draws around 10,000 spectators each game. In addition to the team’s successes this may also have to do with the university’s Quebec City location, where there is no CFL team.
High-profile university sports, like football and hockey, had humble beginnings with regular students trying out for teams, but this is no longer the case. For many sports teams, athletes are scouted and recruited at the high school level.
As universities struggle financially perhaps it’s time for them to start thinking about whether recruiting high calibre athletes, promoting these teams and maintaining stadium infrastructure is a worthwhile investment.