Sports scholarships are an expensive fix to a non-existent problem

Competing with U.S. for athletic scholarships isn’t a solution for Canadian university sport


The Royal Candian Mint; Saeed Adyani/CP Images

Cheering for the home side is a natural and healthy thing to do. So it’s perfectly understandable that Pierre Lafontaine, incoming head of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, wants to boost the prospects for university sports teams in Canada by convincing more student athletes to study and train at home.

“We need to become the destination of choice for high-performance athletes in this country,” Lafontaine vowed at a press conference last week introducing him as the new CEO of Canada’s governing body for university athletics. As things stand right now, many (perhaps most) of Canada’s top-tier high school athletes forsake Canadian schools in favour of U.S. universities, which offer huge scholarship money, massive media exposure and all the associated prestige.

Lafontaine’s goal is commendable, but beyond a sales job heavy on the maple syrup and home cooking, there’s really no way to get around the financial disparities between playing in the U.S. and in Canada. While suggesting that Canadian university coaches need to become “great recruiters,” Lafontaine admits: “I do think the whole discussion of scholarships needs to be addressed.” It ought to be a short discussion.

Whatever loss Canada may suffer when our top young athletes head south is but a minor inconvenience compared to the enormous costs and overall damage an American-style college sports system could wreak on our schools. We’re much better off without those big scholarship dollars.

Canadian schools are currently forbidden from offering athletic scholarships that exceed tuition and student fees. The vast majority get much less than this. While tuition in most provinces is over $5,000 a year, the average Canadian sports scholarship is $1,060.

That’s mere pin money compared to what’s on offer in the U.S. “full-ride” scholarships that cover tuition and fees plus living expenses, transportation and other forms of “special assistance” can easily reach $50,000. The average amount of financial aid for a student athlete in an American public university, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is $25,000.

The size and scope of their athletic scholarships guarantees U.S. schools the best young athletes in the world. This in turns makes university sports an attraction rivalling the professional leagues. U.S. college football alone earns more from its national television deals than the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League.

All that money, however, comes at a tremendous cost. Not only does it pervert the attention of school administrators and fundraisers (“I want a university the football team can be proud of,” said a former president of the University of Oklahoma), it also plays havoc with ethics and law. With athletic success paramount to the reputation of so many American schools, there’s a great temptation to hide scandals or break rules. The list of improprieties arising from high-profile college sports runs the gamut from the cover-up of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial sexual molestations to a legion of tales of improper recruiting and under-the-table payments—everything from cash to sports cars and prostitutes. Sheltered from the enormous stakes at play in the U.S., Canadian college sport is much less prone to scandal.

Furthermore, newly compiled evidence suggests all the riches lavished on athletics is actually impoverishing the American school system. A study published last month by the American Institutes for Research examined the budgets of the 100 or so public universities participating in top-tier college football. Between 2005 and 2010, the report found fewer than one in four schools actually generated a profit from their athletic departments. In other words, at the vast majority of big-spending universities, sport is a money-losing proposition that requires subsidies from academic programs to survive. A Canadian arms race of scholarships and sports funding would inevitably play out the same way—draining funds from the core educational purposes of the university system.

As worthy as it may seem to keep our best student athletes at home, we’re actually better off with the system we have now. If the U.S. wants to pay exorbitant sums to train our best athletes, that’s their choice. And those students remain free to compete for Canada whenever they return. In fact, Lafontaine himself coached in Phoenix and Australia with great success before coming back to head Swimming Canada in 2005. We wish him further success at his new job, but trust he’ll leave the scholarship rules alone.

It’s that time of year when students anxiously wait to hear whether they have been accepted or rejected by universities. As the responses start rolling in, the juggling begins: money versus student life versus academics. The balancing act is fraught with indecision. For the eighth year in a row, the Maclean’s student issue can help, with the most recent rankings of universities in three size categories, as well as the latest surveys showing how current students feel about the choices they made. The focus is on the student, as we explore campus life—from an anonymous compliments movement that began at Queen’s University and spread to 130 schools, to the student obsession with Tim Hortons coffee.

The big surprise is how some post-secondary schools, most of which have career counselling centres, abdicate responsibility for helping students find a job—or even teaching them the mechanics of a job search. The new thinking is that career counselling should start in first year, students should learn basics such as cover-letter writing, and schools should clearly communicate what skills are in demand by the labour market. As the cost of a post-secondary school education rises and the minimum requirement for the most basic of jobs is an undergraduate degree or certificate, schools have to climb down from their ivory towers and help students succeed outside the quadrangle. Students have a right to know whether their degrees are worthy investments. A school’s reputation should depend on it.


Sports scholarships are an expensive fix to a non-existent problem

  1. Silly and a waste of money in this day and age for universities to have ‘sports teams’.

    They act as free farms for private clubs to get their trained players from.

    Different in the olde days when a bunch of farm boys needed to learn how to act as a group, with one person in charge….same as the military…..not at all what we need now.

  2. I understand the concerns addressed in this article, however one major factor not mentioned is the equalizing affects for lower income kids university scholarships offer. There are so many minority and/or low income kids that have no means to change their situation because they can’t afford university and don’t qualify for loans. This would no doubt change the game for a lot of them.

    • Athletic scholarships are not at all the solution to this. Targeted needs-based financial aid will do far more good. As the article notes, sports programs actually drain resources away from other programs–presumably this would include the very sorts of financial aid programs designed specifically to help the underprivileged.

      Frankly, I’ve never understood the need or reason to have semi-pro sports at universities.

  3. The writer completely misses the point and substance of Lafontaine’s statements.

    Lafontaine has already admitted that there isn’t a willingness on behalf of Canadian institutions to fund athletic scholarships. The focus of any change within the Canadian sport system would be funded by the private sector.

    This has already been the model for specific programs within the CIS, most notably Laval and Sherbrooke’s football programs and Carleton’s new program.

    These private groups are investing money into facilities and staging events which help forge community within the campus and build an easily accessible bridge to the surrounding community. The resulting facilities contribute to recreation on those campuses for non-varsity athletes.

    A system operated by the private sector under the watch of the university’s athletic department is very different from the NCAA model the writer suggests here.

    The question then surrounds more comprehensive financial awards for athletics. If the private sector in several CIS centres has already invested their own money by choice into facilities and operations, they should also have the opportunity to invest in the retention of the best Canadian athletic talent. The institutional death spiral that has evolved in NCAA Division I schools was not built on this model.

    In fairness to the NCAA, the vast majority of Division II schools operate in a fiscally responsible manner which do not place the institution’s resources in jeopardy. The D2 model is the closest American comparative of the economy of scale to the current Canadian system.

    In addition to the private sector, there are national sports governing
    bodies who are working with CIS to bring in outside resources for
    training athletes for international competition.

    Lafontaine is not suggesting 100,000 seat facilities and monster programs that become the tail that wags the dog stateside. The us-versus-them comparison in this story is devoid of key facts which makes this a very different discussion for the future of Canadian sport and the benefit to athletes and campuses across the country.

    We should allow the private sector – who would otherwise not be engaged – to contribute in way which keeps a group of our best Canadians at home, rather than directing them to another country for opportunity.

  4. University Football Athletes need more grants and scholarships. These students spend their whole year training. They start university football training mid-August for an intensive vigorous 4 to 5 hour daily training program preparing them towards a winning football season. Most of these players have worked out at special gyms that involve 3 days /week of weight training and 5 days/week of running costing upwards of $275/month. They also hold one of two jobs in order to help pay towards rent and food for the upcoming university year, leaving little time for get togethers with friends. Athletes also spend more time and money with their friends on more sports, like golf, tennis, swimming and playing baseball and football- this is an Athlete’s life most of the time.

    If anyone doesn’t know yet, the cost of sending a Canadian Athlete to University runs in the $19,000/year, covering costs such as tuition, books, rent, food and all other additional expenses tackled on extra curricular activities needed for team building. An athlete can spend a min of 4 to 5 years in University sports, so folks, that’s a cost of $100,000 to send our Football player to university. Can you afford to pay down your mortgage $100,000 in 5 years?

    Canadian Power House Families, financial institutions and governments need to provide more grants and scholarships to our Canadian Athletes. These are your future leaders, very concerned about health, the environment and the future state of generations in Canada. They lead a very disciplined and efficient lifestyle. if we the middle class families cannot afford to send our Athletes to university will they end up being picked up by large institutions to work towards heavy lifting of soda drinks, bottled water and heavy packed merchandize? Rather they should be encouraging young generations to stay healthy, work hard, be safe and stay out of trouble.

    Thanks for giving me a minute, and hope to see more scholarships and grants offered to our Canadian Football University players! Stay fit!

    A concerned mother,

    Amy Wodz
    Halifax, Nova Scotia

  5. I truly believe that help is needed to support our university student athletes. The cost of sending an athlete student “away from home” to university amounts to approx. $20k per year. Plus the Canadian student loan program penalizes our students if they earned more than $3k per year in part time work. The student loan program in Canada beleives that students need to use all their part time money towards school and expects middle class parents to foot the bill on average from $8k to $10k level a year. I don’t know that there are many middle class Canadians anymore who could afford this without dipping into retirement funds and loans upon loans. Canadians are tapped out- how many of you can put $75k to $100k down on your mortgage in 5years? That’s the hidden costs of sending your kids to University . Let’s face it our Athletes need important scholarships or funding to keep our sports soaring!

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