Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

The Plight of Canadian Student Athletes

Canadian Student Athletes

Throughout University, Canadian athletes often toil in obscurity, receiving minimal funding.

In a bittersweet moment for Canadian amateur sports, prized Toronto basketball recruits Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson will both start for a major college program this coming season. Unfortunately for hoop fanatics in the North, the duo won’t be starring for any team in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS). Instead, they’ll highlight a talented 2010-11 recruiting class at the University of Texas.

Joseph’s and Thompson’s decisions to spurn Canadian schools in favour of an American basketball powerhouse were hardly unexpected – both are projected to be top 20 picks in the NBA draft whenever they choose to turn pro. The two actually spent their senior seasons playing for Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, one of the top high school basketball programs in North America. Joseph, a dynamic 6’3 guard, and Thompson, a hyper-athletic 6’8 forward, would have been plagued by boredom had they chosen to stay home and dominate the Canadian university hoops circuit.

That said, the loss of Joseph and Thompson represents a pressing concern for the heads of Canadian university sport. With the promise of international exposure and full athletic scholarships, more home-grown athletes are migrating south for their post-secondary studies, and a chance to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I.

Part of this southern pilgrimage can be attributed to the spotlight placed on American collegiate athletes by the major professional sports leagues. Student athletes believe that the only way they’ll play in the big leagues is to play against the best possible competition in college – namely, the NCAA’s Division I. Notable Canadians playing professionally in the U.S. include two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash (out of the University of Santa Clara), Jason Bay (an MLB outfielder who attended Gonzaga University) and Nick Kaczur (an NFL offensive lineman out of the University of Toledo). Conversely, only one athlete in any of those three leagues came from the CIS – Jon Ryan, an NFL punter who played for the University of Regina.

Another factor is the CIS’ policy that bans all entrance scholarships for athletics – athletes can only receive funding upon entering their second year of school, and the maximum amount one can receive for an athletic award or bursary is payment of tuition and/or compulsory fees. While CIS athletes can receive benefits specific to their university or team, such as a summer job working for the athletic department or as a youth camp counsellor, the compensation pales in comparison to the full ride offered by top American schools. It’s not a situation exclusive to a Cory Joseph or Tristan Thompson-esque professional prospect, either – if any athletically inclined Canadian high-schooler can attend an American university for free, why would he choose to stay home and pay to play for a lowly regarded Canadian program?

Most Canadian athletic programs can be compared to their counterparts in the NCAA’s Division II and III, comprised mainly of smaller universities with lesser athletic inclinations. (Division III schools are not allowed to award athletic scholarships.) Despite a lack of home-grown talent, some northern schools have managed to build a dynasty of sorts in a specific sport. The first program that comes to mind is the Carleton Ravens’ men’s basketball team, coached by Dave Smart and winners of six of the last eight Canadian men’s basketball championships. In their last championship season in 2008-09, Carleton won three of four games in their pre-season exhibition tour of American schools, defeating Northeastern, South Alabama and Buffalo and losing by one point to Kansas, the defending American national champ.

Several of Smart’s top players over the past few years have gone on to play professionally in Europe and Asia. This is the fate that befits the vast majority of CIS athletes that continue their careers past graduation – they are consigned to second-tier leagues on another continent, or even at home here in Canada. (The CFL, anyone?) Throughout their university careers, Canadian athletes toil in obscurity, receiving minimal funding and none of the accolades that their American counterparts revel in.

Currently, Canada’s top high school basketball recruit is Myck Kabongo, a 6’2 point guard considered one of the top players in North America. A native of Toronto, Kabongo is spending his senior year of high school in Henderson, Nevada, starring for Findlay prep and mulling over the scholarship offers of several top American programs. The top school on Kabongo’s list? The University of Texas.

The cycle continues for Canadian university sports.

Nick Faris
Author: Nick Faris
Nick currently works as an intern at Ottawa Life Magazine. After completing university, Nick hopes to pursue his dream of working in sports, either in the media or for a professional team.
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