It was one of the most difficult decisions of my brother’s life. It had boiled down to two choices: Schulich School of Business at York University or Bryant University in Rhode Island. It was April 2009 and my brother was deciding his future.
My brother was a competitive tennis player and wanted a chance to play the sport he loved while getting a top-level education. When he finally made the decision to attend Bryant University’s Division I Tennis Program, it wasn’t just because of the business education, the tight-knit community, or living in Providence; for my brother, and many athletes like him, it was because American universities offer students the opportunity to play their respective sport for free under a scholarship.
An article published in Maclean’s reports, “Canadian schools are currently forbidden from offering athletic scholarships that exceed tuition and student fees… While tuition in most provinces is over $5,000 a year, the average Canadian sports scholarship is $1,060.”
According to the U Sports —previously Canadian Interuniversity Sport — website, “In the 2013–2014 academic school year, member universities together provided $15,981,189 in athletic scholarship money to CIS student-athletes, an increase of 9.5 percent from the previous season.”
That’s nothing compared to what’s on the table in the US. Some US academic scholarships offer students a ‘full-ride’ that pay for virtually everything. These scholarships can easily reach $50,000. The average tuition for a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athlete is around $25,000.
As a result of the size and scope of athletic scholarships, American schools are able to attract the best athletes in the world. This is why universities like the University of Alabama, the University of Michigan, and the University of North Carolina are able to recruit and produce talent that will eventually compete in sports leagues like the National Football League or National Basketball Association.
Unfortunately, this means that Canadian universities are losing out on getting the best athletes, since so many are leaving for the south to play in a more competitive environment.
With undergraduate tuition and compulsory rates expected to rise to $9,541 by 2018, this leaves athletes who come from lower-income families discouraged from staying in Canada, since a Canadian athletic scholarship doesn’t equate to the cost of living expenses.
Furthermore, the U Sports scholarship program faces an equity dilemma, as no scholarships are provided to athletes who have disabilities. Christina Young is a sophomore on the women’s wheelchair basketball team at the University of Illinois. She played basketball all throughout her life, from her humble roots in Cartersville, Georgia to being invited to try out for the US women’s wheelchair basketball team.
One of the deciding factors for Christina to go to the University of Illinois was that it provided her with a full ride scholarship, even with her disability. Unlike U Sports, the NCAA provides funds in recognition of the importance of giving equal financial access and opportunities to athletes, even those who suffer from disabilities.
There was movement within U Sports to revamp its scholarships to prevent an outflow of athletes to the United States. In 2009, the association proposed a ‘salary cap’ model, in which a total financial cap would remain in place at universities but the individual limit would be waived.
In theory, this would allow schools to spend more money on a small number of local high-school athletes to keep them from bolting to an American college. Ultimately, the model was never implemented. Instead, it left U Sports in disarray as there were opposing views among member universities, as some wanted to increase funding for scholarships, while others wanted the status quo to remain.
On September 17, U of T’s homecoming game garnered little interest and the atmosphere was far from electric. A few students I spoke with after the game didn’t even know that Homecoming was happening.
On Oct 1 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the Crimson Tides’ homecoming, they were hosting the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Hours before the game, thousands of fans tailgated in front of Bryant Denny Stadium. For a game that wasn’t even against an SEC rival like LSU or Texas A&M, it was a sell out of over 100,000 people.
It is unfair to compare the football programs of U of T and Alabama, given that the Crimson Tide have won four National Championships in seven years. But the fact that the University of Alabama provides the opportunity of incentives such as full ride scholarships to its prospective athletes means it can attract and produce the best product, increasing revenues and fan viewership across North America.
U Sports will never be the NCAA. But if there’s money to be spent to improve the quality of players and accessibility for athletes with disabilities, it should be spent in hopes of creating a higher-quality league.