Montreal, QC- It is no secret that COVID-19 has taken away many things nobody would have considered being susceptible to the virus. But perhaps one of the more unexpected losses were the football careers of 340 young men across Canada.
When university athletics conferences across the country (with the exception of the RSEQ) made the decision to cancel all fall-term sports, questions began to circulate about what would happen to the athletes with regard to their eligibility status. U SPORTS swiftly assured their players that they would not be charged a year of eligibility as a result of the year being scrapped. It didn’t take long, however, for them to add an asterisk to this decision; nobody would be charged a year of eligibility BUT the seniors in football would not be granted relief from the pre-existing age cap of 25, which therefore means that the class of 2021 had played their last down of football without knowing it.
This age-cap had its reasons upon introduction. U SPORTS needed to implement measures to ensure a competitive balance, as they were finding themselves often having 28-year-olds going head to head with teenagers. This was a result of kids often opting to play multiple years of junior before committing to a university. So in came the age limit.
It is hard to argue with the validity of the rule as a whole, but the way it is being used as a comeback to player arguments in this situation leaves much to be desired. The rhetoric of safety is often thrown around, which has its merits in some cases, but on the whole, and the argument of many, is that there isn’t much to be gained in terms of safety by pushing the age limit back by six months. As it stands, a player ages out if they turn 25 before Sept. 1. Pushing the limit by a few months would not only accommodate the affected players this year, but would also account for the problems U SPORTS is setting up for themselves over the next several years.
To many, losing a year of football might sound like something not worth getting upset about. But imagine if you had committed the last four, five, or even six years worth of your literal blood, sweat and tears to something to only have the pinnacle of that commitment ripped away through no fault of your own. Now add to that finding out not from those who actually made the decision to cut you off, but from Twitter.
If you can put yourself in that situation, then you have a taste of what it felt like to be Riley Harrison, a senior at the University of Manitoba. Harrison echoed that hearing the news through Twitter made it hard to take seriously, but upon having a chance to digest the news, he, along with the rest of the league, felt shocked, angry, and disappointed.
It wasn’t only players who were finding out on social media, but coaches too. Chris Morris, the head coach of the University of Alberta Golden Bears admitted that he too found out about the governing body’s decision via social media. Regardless of how coaches were informed, there was very little that could dull the shock of the ruling, as they had recommended nearly unanimously that seniors be granted the year of extension on their eligibility along with the rest of the league. Morris explains that as educators, their natural instinct is to help the kids they work with. Yet in this situation, there is objectively little that they can do beyond supporting their players as they work through the emotions of what they believe to be an unfair decision.
One of those players being affected is Josiah Joseph, quarterback from the reigning Vanier Cup champion University of Calgary Dinos. Joseph illustrates that it is not as if the seniors brought this situation upon themselves, as we are dealing with a global pandemic that we can agree nobody asked for. The star player also states that he had originally been optimistic that when U SPORTS announced how they planned the eligibility situation it was faced with, they would take care of all of their players.
While Joseph’s initial optimism may have been replaced by disappointment, there remains a strong sense of optimism across the league with regards to U SPORTS changing their minds and reversing the decision. A change in decision would not only benefit this year’s seniors, but also the future of U SPORTS itself. According to Joseph, the decision as it stands paints the organization as being unable to adapt to current situations. Morris remains hopeful that there will be a dose of “sober second thought” amidst the U SPORTS higher-ups and they make a decision in the interest of their own student athletes.
The other argument being used to dissuade seniors from fighting for their final year is roster space. This justification quickly falls apart when you consider that incoming students typically red-shirt for their first year or two, and therefore do not account for a roster spot. Additionally, as Morris explains, if guys are good enough to earn a spot on the squad, they will, just as they always have. Just like in the pros, university coaches are looking to put the best guys on the field, pandemic or not.
So if the players themselves are against losing their senior year, the coaches nearly unanimously advised against it, and a number of pro players are speaking out against U SPORTS (both Harrison and Joseph have attested to the outpouring of support from CFL players on social media) then who exactly believes in this ruling? The question remains about whether or not U SPORTS believes in it enough to carry it out, or if they will hear the uproar of questions and criticism and allow their players to play whenever and wherever a season kicks off.