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.”