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SFU football supporters cry foul

The Burnaby, B.C., university has appointed a special adviser to “explore options for a sustainable way forward” after it axed its football program in April.


Kristie Elliott was having lunch with colleagues when an email popped up in her inbox.

As she opened the message, a group of Simon Fraser University football coaches who had also gathered in the team’s office that April afternoon – to watch game footage, recruit, and plan for the upcoming fall season – noticed they had all received the same email.

It was a note from the university’s athletic director who wanted to schedule a mandatory meeting with the team the next day.

Most of the football staff were caught off guard by the unusual request.

“I think most of the coaches thought it was something positive,” said Ms. Elliott, who had just wrapped up a two-year stint as SFU’s starting kicker and was one month into her new role as the program’s director of football operations.

“We were blindsided.”

On April 4, SFU announced that it had decided to end its varsity football program after 57 years. The news came as a shock to the team’s administration and student-athletes, and has continued to reverberate across the wider Canadian football community.

“I went into the [athletic director’s] office, they sat me down and told me that they’ve tried everything they could to keep the program running, but unfortunately I’ve been terminated,” Ms. Elliott said. “I just started bawling my eyes out.”

In a statement posted on SFU’s athletic website on April 25, the university said it had come to the decision amid the uncertainty of what collegiate conference the football team would compete in after this fall.

The only Canadian university in the NCAA

Since 2010, when SFU made the decision to leave U Sports, Canada’s organization for university sport, it has been Canada’s only postsecondary institution to compete in the U.S.-based National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). From 2010 to 2021, the football team was a member of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC). In 2022, after the GNAC discontinued its football conference, SFU joined the Lone Star Conference, whose members are primarily based in Texas and New Mexico. Both conferences are affiliated with the NCAA.

Following just one season of competition, however, the Lone Star Conference decided in January to not renew their membership with SFU after 2023 – meaning that the upcoming season, which was slated to begin in September, would have been the football team’s last in the conference. The university said it made the decision to scrap the football team entirely to allow players to explore the possibility of playing varsity football at other institutions for 2023 and beyond.

“Football student-athletes came to SFU to play in a sanctioned, competitive varsity association,” SFU wrote in its April 25 statement. “The decision of the Lone Star Conference has made it impossible for the university to ensure its ability to field a full or competitive team for the fall, and uncertainty for the fall is not an acceptable experience for students.”

In the wake of the announcement, SFU football alumni, the BC Lions, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and the mayor of Port Coquitlam have come out in support of the program. A coalition of student organizations, including the SFU student society (SFSS), also co-wrote an open letter to SFU on April 24 that denounced a lack of consultation in the termination process and the impact it has had on marginalized students.

A legal bid to have the team reinstated was dismissed by a B.C. Supreme Court judge on May 11. However, that same day, the university announced that it had appointed Bob Copeland “to explore options for the future of football at SFU.” Mr. Copeland is former director of athletics at the University of Waterloo and senior vice-president of McLaren Global Sport Solutions, a company specializing in sport governance and arbitration. He is to deliver a report by September, including assessing the viability of resuming an inter-university program by 2024 or later and support for exhibition game opportunities in 2023.

Andrew Liang, one of the players named in the unsuccessful legal application, said that the timing to cut the team has impacted the possibility of students being able to play football in the fall at another Canadian university.

“Most of the Canadian teams have already filled their rosters and given away their scholarships,” Mr. Liang said. “I don’t think any of the teams question the talent that [SFU] has, it’s that they legitimately have no roster spots available.”

Mr. Liang added it can be hard for players to transfer their credits to a new school, depending on the progress they’ve made in their degrees, and that it’s too late in the year to enroll in a new university for the fall term.

“The timing of the decision was not made with our best interests in mind,” Mr. Liang said.

In a video statement posted after the legal decision, SFU president Joy Johnson apologized for the stress that the situation has caused for student-athletes and the rest of the university’s football program staff and supporters. “SFU recognizes how important football is to you,” Dr. Johnson said. “I understand your concerns and desire to find a way forward for football at SFU.”

However, SFU “has no place to play football in the NCAA,” she added. “There are challenges to address and we want to find a solution together.”

Before the decision was made to cut the football team, SFU did not submit a request to rejoin U Sports, according to a media report. The Canadian organization forbids schools from having teams play in more than one conference, and the remainder of SFU’s varsity teams compete in the NCAA.

Mr. Liang suggested that among the possible options could be the team becoming independent, meaning they would schedule their own games and play without a conference affiliation. But doing that may prevent SFU from playing a full season of games, as it would be difficult to schedule opponents who are required to play their conference rivals a set number of times in a year.

Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Liang said the outpouring of support for the program has been eye-opening.

“SFU football, specifically, puts out good people into the community… and provides good members of society who are impactful in ways other than athletics,” he said. “I think that people can see what removing that from B.C. would do.”

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  1. Charles Yorkson / May 31, 2023 at 15:29

    The real “foul” in all of this is that SFU is in the NCAA in the first place. The odd decision to join the NCAA years ago never made any sense, except as a misguided attempt to improve SFU’s reputation and increase its name recognition. (Well, I guess SFU is in the news now!) As with everything at the University, it never occurs to the administration to focus on something like the quality of learning to up its reputation, which can really be improved only by making courses smaller. Instead, we get foolish attempts like joining the NCAA, or the hiring of literally dozens of staff to support teaching, none of whom have ever taught at the university level.

    And what did we get with the NCAA? The obligation to be accredited by a US accreditation body, which costs the university perhaps a million dollars a year (though they won’t say, of course). Imagine that cash going to, um, smaller classes?

    You have to also see this mess with the football team in the context of an endless series of crises and goof-ups by the SFU administration over the past handful of years, all of which get solved by either hiring more administrators or by hiring “outside consultants” to the tune–yes, it’s true–of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, per year. At a time when SFU’s complement of administrators has increased at a rate far outstripping the rate at which faculty numbers have increased, we can’t keep a provost or vice-president academic; we can’t keep a head of Faculty Relations; we can’t hire a capable VP to oversee teaching and learning. This list goes on and on and on.

    While I feel for the students who were left high and dry by this decision, I also know that the issue will disappear in a little while. I’ve taught at a university that ended its football program years ago: it was expensive, it was dangerous, and it was hard to be competitive. There was an uproar at the time from a select group of alumni and then it was gone and it was just fine. But the way this decision has been handled is classic SFU.

  2. Robert McFarlane / May 31, 2023 at 16:47

    This summary of the issue is gentle in its treatment of SFU and its administration. The situation is a case study of poor administrative leadership, insensitivity, and incompetent issue management. SFU has continuously appeared to say one thing (acting in the student’s best interests) and doing the opposite. Taking SFU at its word, the decision was not budget related, despite cancelling the football program a year before they needed to change leagues without applying to U Sports for admission, only days before student-athletes would write their final exams and after the window for student-athletes to transfer and play elsewhere had effectively closed. Not to mention a short time after signing a freshman recruit class who turned down offers from other universities that are generally no longer available. The resulting considerable negative media coverage and alumni relations impact illustrates how SFU has self created meaningful reputational risk through continued poor handling of the situation. This matter reflects badly on the entire governance of the university as it is one thing for an administration to make a poor decision, but another to double down and compound it with simply incompetent issue management and communications. Administrative leadership may be accountable, but the board is responsible. I hope the special rapporteur, I mean “consultant”, can bring forward the obvious solutions at hand, which have already been recommended by alumni and community leaders. Given the significant student, alumni and community interest in saving the program, there remains an opportunity to do the right thing and engage constructively with stakeholders to create a positive way forward. Let’s see if the administration can finally pass the test and walk through the open door, guided by their special consultant, to finally do the right thing.