UTSU elections’ accountability crisis

Platitudes and politeness in place of substance and pragmatism

UTSU elections’ accountability crisis

A post-mortem analysis of the recent University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) spring elections reveals a series of insights on the evolution of campus politics over the years: most notably, the increasing role politeness and geniality, rather than substance and pragmatism have come to play in campaigning.

The recent history of union elections is checkered with conflicts that have typically hinged on significant and divisive issues; the threat of divisional defederation comes to mind. Much of that discourse was difficult, some of it bordered on ad-hominem attack, but the impassioned debate overwhelmingly had the best interests of students at heart.

That tradition seems to have entirely given up the ghost however, as this campaign season was the most vapid in some time. No one misses histrionics of the past when it comes to debate performances or campaign statements, but something vital was lost with the bathwater as this year’s candidates wasted opportunities to scrutinize one another on specifics.

Few of the candidates were willing to engage with the details of their campaign promises, many chose instead to pay brief lip service to the core mandate while focusing on grandiose ideals.

Providing for medical and dental coverage, consulting with administration on academic life, protecting and promoting equity, and advocating for student issues are important and valued contributions, though they reflect the limit of what the union can realistically achieve. Propositions such as bringing about free tuition province wide, constructing and staffing a 24-hour mental health centre on campus, or bringing international students coverage under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) are not promises, they are platitudes. Airing the notion that projects of this magnitude fall under the UTSU’s purview and potential is not only foolhardy, it’s irresponsible.

Proposals like these reveal some insidious trends in UTSU electioneering: either the candidates include them in their platforms knowing full well that they are unachievable, or they don’t know and haven’t taken the time to look into it. Both are bad.

Unfortunately, the only incisive questioning during the Executive Debate came from the moderators and audience, most of which went unanswered.

The issue is complicated further by an undergirding skepticism and distrust of the provincial government and U of T administration. Often, prospective student leaders hurl vitriol at these bodies in an attempt to scapegoat and draw undeserved attention to the power and purpose of the student movement.

Yet, the administration and government are not necessarily the enemy, and certainly aren’t worth provoking with contemptuous grandstanding. The reality of the situation is that the success of anything the UTSU hopes to achieve in a given year, big or small, is inextricably linked to decisions made by these groups. The provincial government and U of T administration are not intransigent gatekeepers. They are our partners.

Bombastic promises like the ones thrown around during the Executive Debate and throughout the campaign represent little more than diversions, drawing focus away from the big-picture impotence of the union, and in some cases the lack of preparedness of the candidates.

It certainly isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it one that is unique to student politics, but that is not reason enough to excuse it in our community. There are meaningful and substantial things the UTSU can achieve, but those things tend to take a back seat when candidates are fighting for the lion’s share of support.

Building a platform on unreasonable, or in some cases unattainable ideals is irresponsible and part and parcel of the UTSU’s mandate crisis — 9.7 per cent of eligible voters participated in last week’s elections —insofar as students are not willing to engage or endorse leaders without realistic plans.

This bankruptcy of substance is a disappointing turn of events for the UTSU after a year that was shepherded in with high hopes. Brighter UofT ran on a pledge to clean house and initiate a process of responsive and responsible governance — though in recent months the union and especially its returning executives have remained hard to pin on the outstanding question of membership in the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), which most will remember was implicitly at the core of their run for office.

When pushed on the topic at the Executive Debate, now president elect, Denike and 1UofT candidate, Madina Siddiqui were expectedly non-committal, offering some variation on the “whatever the students want” response. The students, at least the ones still willing to participate, handed the UTSU a pretty clear indication of their wants last year when Brighter was elected and a CFS affiliated, slow-to-act cycle of incumbencies was brought to an end. As of yet, the implicit promise at the heart of Brighter’s success last year remains unfulfilled.

If the UTSU wants to make itself more relevant on campus, it can start by engaging students in a responsible way during elections with respect to what can be achieved, and how.

Streaming vs. CDs

Is streaming the future of music? 

Streaming vs. CDs

Recently, Kanye West announced on Twitter that his newest album, The Life of Pablo will be the last work he releases that will be available in a physical format. From now on, he will be releasing his music exclusively via online streaming. Conversely, late last year, Adele’s 25 set numerous sales records when her CD was released. “I don’t use streaming,” she said at the time. “I buy my music. I download it, and I buy a physical [copy] just to make up for the fact that someone else somewhere isn’t. It’s a bit disposable, streaming.”

Adele may not find streaming compelling, but the service is growing and changing the music industry, allowing listeners to build and maintain immense libraries of music on the cheap. Services like Google Play Music advertise the potential for “access to 35 million songs and offline listening” for a monthly rate roughly equivalent to the cost of a single CD. Though the artist does not profit off of the mark-up of the physical copy, and most major artists earn a large chunk of their revenue from touring.

Streaming services like Tidal are actually owned by artists; a nuanced idea that is still catching on. Artists featured on these services have more control over their work and profit directly from sales, eliminating middle–men.

Other artists stand to make roughly the same amount through making their music available on major streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Prime Profits aside however, streaming services provide a unique platform for increased exposure by way of its playlists, an advantage for lesser-known artists, though the services have still faced some criticism for the quality of their playlists, which are often curated by algorithms rather than humans.

Many artists are skeptical of the streaming model, believing it to be a major threat to the industry; particularly because of concerns over reductions in sound quality — many music purists complain of poor quality sound from services like Apple Music and Amazon Prime. There have even been studies on the effects of compressed .mp3 quality on the human ear that have found that higher-quality recordings are more effecting in eliciting dopamine reactions. Tidal however, ensures “lossless” data compression, meaning that the quality of sound on their service is more or less indistinguishable from that of a CD recording.

But what does all this mean to the average listener? The first thing that comes to my mind when I consider the transition from physical to digital is the fate of album cover artists. An industry unto itself, it offers a special component to the physical CD experience. I have a vivid childhood memory of being completely mesmerized by the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I’m fairly certain I had my sexual awakening upon seeing Tina Turner on the cover of Private Dancer. There’s nothing like picking up a CD, examining the cover, opening the liner and following along with the lyrics. I will say, however, with the advent of new computers lacking a CD drive altogether, I am much less inclined to go out and buy any CD.

The debate over the best way to consume music is probably too subjective to be taken too seriously. Every facet of “musical preference” remains part of the prismatic beauty of the medium.

And the band did not play on

Musical presence at varsity games promotes school spirit

And the band did not play on

In NCAA sports, a school’s marching band plays a vital role in the overall game day atmosphere. The noise elicits excitement in the stands, and the band’s performances entice more fans to attend games. Marching bands at division one schools like Ohio State and USC put on intricate half time shows to entertain attendees; these bands bring a sense of pride and spirit to the student body.

Last September, I was hired as a promoter for U of T’s varsity sports program. I was very excited and surprised to learn that U of T actually paid students to attend games and promote the program to fans. As I thought about it more though, I realized that this suggests that U of T needs to pay students by the hour to help draw fans, since the football, hockey, and basketball teams aren’t able to draw crowds on their own.              

At the first Blues football game against the Queen’s Gaels, I was pleasantly surprised to see cheerleaders, halftime entertainment, and concessions stands: it felt like a real college football experience. The Queen’s team entered the stadium with a full marching band, which was able to perform on the field throughout the game. The band created a spirited energy in their fan section — unfortunately U of T didn’t have anything to match the musical Gaels.              

Darnell Girard, an ex-Blues football player explained, “It’s pretty evident by the attendance at our games that spirit is lacking here… by being a player you definitely see the lack of it.”

At a school of over 60,000 students spread across three campuses, it is hard to foster school spirit. But as the top university in Canada, U of T may want to look into adding an official marching band to the varsity roster.

U of T students show glimpses of school spirit during frosh week, when students cheer and represent their colleges in a huge parade down St. George Street.

It appears that school spirit is created in “smaller units as something to build off of,” explained Will Merrik, Joonyur Bnad Leedur of U of T’s the Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad.  “So for us, we have the band, we have our own skule, s-k-u-l-e, spirit. We need to cultivate that and kindle it through the year and not just here, it has to continue.”

The bnad is an open and accepting student group that allows anyone to join and play an instrument, but it is technically not a ‘marching band’. Skulepedia accurately refers to it as a “meandering band.”

When asked if a marching band would add energy during game day, Girard explained, “[The crowd would] be aroused… it might actually let them know when to cheer.”

Girard went on to mention that the Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad ended up having a huge impact on the atmosphere whenever they attended games. “The crowd support seemed to double, triple maybe… it’s something we could really benefit from,” he explained.

Merrik added that it “would certainly serve to bring together people from different faculties and different schools under that flag of school spirit once again.”

As U of T has invested a lot of money and resources into their varsity teams, it would be great to see the student body show more appreciation and excitement over their sports teams. A marching band will undoubtedly draw more fans to games and increase school spirit among U of T’s vast student body.

Into the maw of victory

Basketball through the eyes of an ignoramus

Into the maw of victory

I have seen more live sports in the past two years of my life than in all the years preceding them. When I came to Canada, I came with a checklist of sorts: I made it my goal to see as many quintessentially North American sporting events as possible.              

Last weekend, I was able to check basketball off the list, which joined ice hockey and baseball. The game I attended was between the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics — I was quickly corrected when I attempted to pronounce it with a hard ‘c’.              

While I do not care for playing sports myself, I love watching them and participating in the rituals of the game, including singing the national anthem at the beginning. I even had a hat to remove when prompted to do so by the announcement.

Knowing everyone else would come dressed in some manner of team swag, I had anticipated feeling out of place, so I had done my best by wearing my OVO cap in homage to Drake, the Raptors’ patron, and a jumper with ‘Toronto vs. Everybody’ emblazoned on the front.

I picked up a sense of the rules of the game fairly quickly: players may move anywhere on the court, the perimeters of which are clearly marked; the further away a player is from the basket when they take a successful shot, the higher the number of points they score; and fouls may result in a penalty shot or two.             

After the game began, the first thing that surprised me was the speed at which it was played. The players moved with such fluidity, and it was a delight to watch.

I lack sufficient understanding of the game’s technicalities to appreciate the players’ strategic manoeuvres, but I enjoyed what I saw for its aesthetic merits.

This proved to be a problem when I came to see the beauty of the opposing team’s playing too. I exclaimed, “Wow! Nice shot!” when Boston scored with seemingly effortless grace. I began to applaud in appreciation but realized that nobody around me was doing the same.

As the game went on, I heard Toronto fans buzzing and howling in attempt to throw Boston off their game. I thought the lack of applause and hooliganism distasteful, but I accepted it as part of the experience, even if I did not wish to partake in it myself. When I tried to politely clap for Boston I was cowed out of my attempts by the silence of Toronto fans around me.

The entertainment during time-outs and breaks was also something I considered to be more North American than British, with the t-shirt cannons being a particular highlight. I did not try to catch one, but watching the cannon firing into the stands was a novel experience.

Aside from that, I was not particularly fond of the commercialization and would have preferred some game commentary or replays of impressive shots. Still, it was entertaining and I did benefit from the sponsorship in the end; the Raptors broke 100 points, meaning that I was entitled to a free slice of pizza the following day.

The end score was 105–91 for the Raptors. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, my criticisms notwithstanding. I had the fortune to see two slam-dunks, one by each team.

A slam-dunk is a wonderfully flamboyant gesture. It is testament to a player’s confidence in their ability to pull off the move and their team’s capacity to comfortably forgo a higher scoring shot. I truly appreciate the sacrifice of a larger victory for pure theatrics.

Putting the ‘free’ in freerunning

The emergence of Toronto’s parkour community

Putting the ‘free’ in freerunning

Remember the carefree days of youth, when climbing around on the jungle gym was the most exhilarating part of a trip to the local park? Imagine being able to relive that excitement to an even greater degree.

Parkour, or freerunning, is the French martial art of momentum and has been steadily rising in popularity around Toronto over the past several years. Practitioners consist of martial artists, daredevils, adrenaline junkies, and those who simply want to move without restriction.

It is the art of getting from one point to another in the quickest or most efficient way possible — with some flashy flips thrown in every now and then. There are several basic methods of movement in parkour: rolls, vaults, jumps, and drops.

Below the surface, parkour can also be considered an art form and mode of expression. Chris Taylor, a gymnastics instructor and parkour practitioner at U of T, believes that parkour has the power to be used as a means of self-expression.

It allows one to move their body rhythmically with a flow that encompasses a feeling of weightlessness, while still offering a wide range of choice in how one tackles a particular obstacle. There are no strict rules as to how one should practice and no set objectives to follow.

An individual’s experience is tailored exclusively to them, based on what they want to do and how far they are willing to push themselves physically. If you want to perform flashy stunts, develop a skill-set that can help prevent injury, or experience the closest thing to unassisted human flight, parkour has you covered.

It is also an activity that almost anyone can get involved with to some capacity. Taylor mentioned having a 70-year-old student who, after adjusting his movements, was able to practice parkour-like motions in a way that complimented his physical abilities. Given parkour’s free-flowing nature, the only barriers in parkour are the ones that are self-imposed.

In Toronto, you may see people training around Queen’s Park or in the city’s largest indoor gym, The Monkey Vault, which is located at St.Clair Avenue and Symes Road.

The Monkey Vault was the brain child of Dan Iaboni, who opened the massive indoor park “dedicated to movement.” His purpose was to give Toronto’s parkour community a place to train and to teach those who are interested but not necessarily ready or willing to train on the streets.

It may seem daunting to leap across tall buildings or climb around in the potentially dangerous and highly industrialized downtown core. Toronto’s parkour community is actually very accepting of beginners, and most of the basics can be drilled and practiced in a controlled environment. The Monkey Vault offers beginner classes for anyone with an itch to try something new.

The Monkey Vault’s goal is to help people “reach further and higher levels” of personal development, which transcends above the martial art itself. They aim to recapture the spirit of childlike freedom, a sentiment with which parkour practitioners can readily agree.

Whether you see it as a martial art, a creative outlet, or something in between, it’s clear that parkour has become an exciting niche pastime with an expanding community in Toronto and U of T.

Spring is around the corner, so now is the perfect time to get involved in Toronto’s parkour scene. If you are cautious and practice, it can be a very rewarding experience.

Superstition in sport

The reason behind good luck charms

Superstition in sport

Ever notice when hockey players in the playoffs grow their beards until their team is eliminated? Or how many teams refuse to touch the trophies awarded to the conference champions? Do these kinds of rituals and traditions actually make a difference on game day?

Many of these habits can seem bizarre and even embarrassing. Yet for many players, these  rituals play a large role in their success on the field.              

In sports, a ritual is a certain action that an athlete performs because they believe it has the power to influence their game in a positive way. These behaviours range from wearing certain clothes, to eating certain foods, to listening to particular music during pre-game warm up.

The superstition surrounding rituals arise almost accidentally: an athlete has an exceptional performance and then tries to determine which of their actions could have been the cause of their success.

Often, the things that stick out during these post-game evaluations are the little things; what they wore, what they ate, a song they heard, a conversation they had, or even the order in which they did these things.

Hall of Fame NHL goaltender Ken Dryden opens up about some of his own superstitions in his book The Game. Dryden’s personal rituals range from nodding at a particular Montreal Forum usherette before home games, to shooting a puck off a certain part of the boards at the start of pre-game warm ups.

“I don’t tell anyone about them, I’m not proud I have them. I know I should be strong enough to decide one morning, any morning, no longer to be a prisoner to them. Yet, I seem helpless to do anything about,” Dryden says.

He isn’t the only NHL superstar who engages in specific rituals before a game. Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ two-time MVP, wears one sweat-stained hat per season after games and practices putting his equipment on always in the exact same order (right-to-left).

Corey Perry, the star winger of the Anaheim Ducks, has a specific eight-step ritual he performs before every game, which includes twirling his stick a certain way and tapping the ice before going into the locker room to put his pads on.              

George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco who has studied superstition in baseball for decades, says that superstition is very commonly found in areas where there tends to be a lot of uncertainty, where new competition brings new obstacles to overcome.

Gmelch says, “What they’re really doing is giving themselves confidence. If I do these little rituals, then I’m gonna feel confident going into this activity, and I can succeed and do well.”

This notion of self-efficacy — a person’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations — has been found to result in real world increased performance. A 2010 article published in Psychological Science discusses a number of experiments that researchers used to prove how good-luck rituals improved performance in sports. The performance benefits gained from the good-luck rituals were found to be a result of increased confidence.              

Although athletes understand that wearing a sweaty hat or growing a beard doesn’t actually affect the outcome of a game, the idea that these rituals could possibly affect their performance, or give them some good luck, is enough to convince them to do it anyway.

When it comes down to it, athletes have nothing to lose by engaging in quirky pre-game rituals, so why take the risk and ditch the old smelly hat?

‘She Talks’ about social change

“Sport is an awesome place for social change”

‘She Talks’ about social change

“We’ve come so far in some ways in the conversations that we’re having, but we haven’t in so may other ways,” said Kristine Drakich, head coach of the Blues women’s volleyball team. “There’s almost like there’s this great distance from where we’re moving ahead, but we’re not picking up from behind.”             

Drakich was one of four women from the U of T community to participate in the third installment of Hart House’s She Talks last week. She Talks rose out of the need for campus-wide conversation about issues women face in sport: sexism, misogyny, and sexualization.                 

Joining Drakich on the panel was national women’s dodgeball team member Savannah Burton, U of T masters student Alexandra Maris, and Blues rugby player Rachel Pham — all of whom have faced or fought against discriminatory and exclusionary practices in the world of sport because they are women.               

For Burton, who is Canada’s first openly trans athlete to compete internationally in a team sport, the support she received from her teammates was enough to help her overcome the fears she had about returning to sport after her transition.

“I was ready to give up on playing sports, like I was ready to give up everything,” said Burton who, after taking a year off, was unsure of her future in sport. After being approached by a friend to join a rowing team, Burton explained that participating in a sport where she was relatively unknown helped her gain the confidence necessary to return to her favourite sport — dodgeball.

“It was a horribly terrifying thing to do and the unknown was just really hard to deal with,” Burton said. “I was so relieved because I was worried about how I was going to be perceived and how people would treat me, and it was a really positive thing and kept me going to dodgeball Canada.”  

She Talks. Nyima Gyalmo/The Varsity

She Talks. Nyima Gyalmo/The Varsity

The acceptance and support Burton received from her team and sport community is a thread that was woven into every panelist’s experiences. For Pham, who has competed in a myriad of sports including field hockey, track and field, and rugby, the team aspect of sport helped her navigate some of the stigma and sexist stereotypes that are all too common for women in sport.

“Really for me what I loved so much… about sport boiled down to… the community. I am very fortunate to be on a team that is very inclusive, we are very tight” Pham said.              

For Pham, the decision to pursue sports at an intercollegiate level meant making the decision between conforming to traditional societal standards of femininity or becoming a successful, competitive athlete. “I had to make the choice of going to be able to be more socially acceptable or have a larger more muscular body, and obviously I chose to be an athlete” she said.

Rounding out the discussion, Maris, who is pursuing a masters degree from the faculty of women and gender studies at U of T, explained that in order to combat sexist practices in sport, we need to start with how women are portrayed in the media. “If there were pictures of women doing sports everywhere, I think there would be a more social acceptance of women being in sport and doing it,” she said.

Drakich followed with a comment that those at U of T need to be critical of gendered practices on campus, so that we can foster a strong and supportive sport community.

“We have to look at what we do, how critical are we of what we do, from you know recreation to intramurals to varsity” Drakich said. “What you need to have is some form of a community that you can go to, where you know your voice gets heard and that change will actually work, action will happen.”

Sports and drinking: a perfect match

Alcohol is the norm in sports

Sports and drinking: a perfect match

Some equate Varsity Stadium’s poor attendance during varsity football games to a lack of spirit. That would be true, but just a couple kilometres south, the opposite can be said for attendees at the Air Canada Centre (ACC), who are cheering on the Raptors or the Leafs.

Is it simply because people get more pleasure from watching the Raptors than from watching the Varsity Blues? Out of all universities in the OUA though, U of T boasts some pretty impressive standings. Rather, it appears as if the problem stems from the lack of a form of enjoyment that is automatically associated with sports: alcohol.

“I went to a game, like most first years do when they get into university,” said Arvin Reyes, a second-year media studies student. “But after being only one of 50 or so in the audience, and a large absence of alcohol when attending the game, I think I’m better off going to Western’s games with my friends.” 

A University of Minnesota study on alcohol consumption in sports showed that a substantive amount of post-secondary students were above the .08 limit while watching a game. This suggests that drinking goes hand-in-hand with sporting events, which is why U of T needs to consider offering it at its facilities.

Drinking in a more controlled environment is also safer for the students. Last year, University of Maryland president Wallace Loh said student leaders want to “transition from a culture of unsafe pregame binge drinking to a culture focused on healthier social drinking.”

Seeing as it would be impossible to eliminate the drinking aspect of live sports, it would be beneficial to incorporate it into these events legally. Plus, events on campus would encourage attendees that live in close proximity to travel by walking instead of driving.

Additionally, tailgating — when fans gather before games to socialize and eat meals served from the back of trucks — promotes a sense of school spirit and attachment that transcends attendance at a game. At Louisiana State University, for example, socializing begins the night before the game and continues on until well after the game.

In most cases, it’s not even about the game; it’s about the experience that a student has participating in something larger than themselves. It’s time U of T and universities alike recognize that alcohol facilitates that process.              

A recent article in the New York Times describes the relationships an attendee built while tailgating before a game. “Normally, you just talk about football, try to initiate conversation,” the fan said. “You just got to talk to people and then you realize, ‘ Hey, I’ll see you again next time.’ That’s the whole point of tailgating… you meet everyone around you.”   

Including alcohol in sporting events might bring about additional issues, but these could be prevented with the right type of controls. U of T could benefit from some increased school spirit at games and providing alcohol would be a step in the right direction.