For the first time in 20 years, the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues football team managed to finish its season with a 4–4 record. While the team has still not achieved a winning season for many years, there are now signs that the organization is well on its way to a successful revival. The changes in the win column have largely been brought about by University of Toronto Athletics, which is working to improve the program by hiring a savvy and accomplished coaching staff and striving for stronger player recruitment. That impending success story is balanced by less well-funded programs, whose lack of success is set to result not in increased assistance and effort from the university, but in the loss of intercollegiate status and the Varsity Blues name.
The review of the university’s sports model that is accompanying the ongoing review of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education will affect any program that falls under the faculty, not just intercollegiate sports. The criteria to be used for the revision of the current sports model was made public last year. At that time, affected teams and individuals were offered the opportunity to meet with Beth Ali, director of intercollegiate sport, for a 90-minute consultation to react to and express concerns about the remodel.
The remodel is multifaceted and addresses 14 areas within the faculty. It proposes to make substantive changes, ranging from the manner in which sporting organizations such as the Canadian Intercollegiate Sport (CIS) and Ontario University Athletics (OUA) rank the sports in question, and the financial costs incurred by the athletes, to the frequency and severity of injury to players in the sport, and the success of individual athletes on provincial, national, and international scales.
There is a sound basis for each of these criteria, but affected athletes have objected to the way they are being applied to various teams and groups. As The Varsity reported last year, the women’s rugby team has expressed concern about a lack of training facilities available to them on campus. Rather than providing the team with the facilities they need to be competitive, or the time to use other facilities on campus, the administration is considering reclassifying the team as an intramural sport. The remodel seems to be penalizing teams that the university currently does not provide sufficient support for, rather than attempting to rectify the problems that these teams are facing.
Ali has said that “U of T used to have many, many examples [of top athletes competing at U of T], and our lack of success has diminished our ability to produce athletes like that in all of our sports.” Ali and the Varsity Blues’ office seem to be ignorant to the fact that students are attracted to U of T for its academic reputation, rather than its athletic one. A student whose criteria in choosing a university include its athletic programs would be better served applying to almost any American university; even if they were to stay in Canada, U of T is hardly an athletic powerhouse.
There is an inherent contradiction in the current plan for U of T’s athletic programs. The impending remodel evidently places a premium on a team or individual athlete’s successes if it is looking to demote varsity programs that are struggling to compete — except in the case of the football team, which has been a perennial disappointment for the past two decades, where the department seems willing to spare no expense to help the team get its head above water. Only now, after 20 years of continued focus and effort, is the football team showing signs of life. One is left to wonder: Why would U of T choose to focus on a select few teams, rather than invest in programs that are struggling without necessary resources? Teams like women’s rugby have trouble competing because they cannot attract, retain, or develop top-tier talent without the resources or facilities they need. Rather than reclassifying programs that cannot reach their full potential without investment, U of T Athletics should consider redistributing sports funding.
Football is not the only sport likely to score poorly in a number of categories on the model that will not face demotion. Men’s hockey requires a large medical, equipment, and event staff; players have a high injury rate, both in terms of frequency and severity; the team has not seen significant success for several years, and has had few or no provincially or nationally ranked players on its roster in that time. Nevertheless, the chances that the team will face damaging changes under the new model are slim, due no doubt to the prominence of the sport in this country.
The remodel seems to give preference to the “big” sports — football, hockey, soccer, field hockey, volleyball, basketball, track and field, and swimming. Meanwhile, the women’s golf and men’s baseball teams have both won back-to-back OUA championships, and the badminton teams are consistently very successful, yet receive little attention and funding in comparison to those with bigger public profiles.
Many varsity teams are completely self-funded and self-driven, meaning that they have to do a significant portion of their administrative work themselves; these are the teams being threatened with a downgrade by the sports remodel. Meanwhile, sports that receive a high level of attention do not always perform in a way that reflects the time, money, and effort put into them.
U of T should try to mould its system such that it does not punish teams that already function without much assistance from athletics staff. If, as it claims, the university hopes to attract a range of strong student-athletes who are both academically and athletically gifted, the solution is to provide a range of teams that are properly funded and supported on a relatively equally footing. The currently proposed sports remodel does not meet these goals.