Skip navigation
In my opinion

Just say no to the ‘scholar-athlete’ of the U.S. system

A former coach pleads for Canadian universities to retain their much better model of inter-collegiate sport.


Todd Pettigrew’s original opinion piece recommending the abolition of varsity sport in Canadian universities and Richard Price’s extended response were both excellent, well-written articles. However, neither writer treated what I believe to be the heart of the matter. What now exists in Canadian interuniversity sport, if it is compared to National Collegiate Athletic Association athletics in America, is fundamentally Division II status (a move from previous Division III status). To put it bluntly, that means that Canadian interuniversity sport has moved from so-called amateur athletics to so-called semi-professional athletics. (In America for years now, in addition to these two divisions, there has also been a Division I status that can only be described as professional athletics).

When I first came to Canada in 1949, the football teams in the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union were from the University of Toronto, McGill University, Queen’s University, and the University of Western Ontario. At Western, John Metras was the head coach; Dr. Jack Fairs was the backfield coach, and I became the line coach. Happily for us, due to a combination of circumstances, Western emerged as Canadian champions in both 1949-50 and 1950-51.

How times have changed! As I check the rankings from time to time, the status of the football teams from these four universities has varied greatly. This tells me that these four universities have maintained their academic standards for student admission and student retention. It tells me, also, that they are not “buying” their athletes in one way or another. (I hasten to add, however, that all worthy students with proven financial need should be helped.)

Should the present oscillating status of the former “Big Four” universities vis-à-vis national football standing concern us? It has been reported that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. But then, we are not certain he had all his mental faculties. Here, in this plaintive commentary, I argue we too are fiddling while some aspects of university competitive sport are catching fire.

What do I mean by this? I mean basically that several (potentially box-office?) university sports are gradually sliding into semi-professionalism. I have no quarrel with a young person striving for excellence in competitive sport on a semi-professional or professional basis. Why should anyone? After all, sport is a legitimate aspect of our culture despite the evident abuses that are prevailing increasingly. It would help, however, if much of the sham and hypocrisy could be removed from competitive sport.

Amateur, professional and semi-professional

In other fields – the field of music, for example – the problem of amateurism, semi-professionalism and professionalism has been resolved quite nicely. The person who plays the trumpet in the high school band is an amateur. If he or she is good enough to play with some group regularly on weekends for, say, $100 a night, then we can agree that semi-professionalism is being achieved. Who can be critical of this? Finally, this student might eventually choose to become a professional musician or music teacher as a lifetime occupation. At this point, the individual is a professional because his or her entire living will come from this source.

Such a graduated scheme was, and still is, viewed as quite acceptable in our society for musicians, artists, sculptors, actors and many others – but not for athletes! Why are athletes so different when it comes to involvement, either within educational circles or on national- and international-level teams? Granted, there have been several breakthroughs in isolated instances (such as trust funds established by government for downhill skiers), but this has been accompanied by a lot of smirking and/or grimacing by diehard purists.

Most unfortunately, cheating and deceit developed gradually and steadily with this semi-professionalism throughout the 20th century for many young men (and now young women) in commercialized American university sport. And these athletes are so often underprivileged youngsters too, more often Black than white. They spend so much time on football, for example, that they rarely earn a baccalaureate degree in the allotted four years. In fact, there has been a significant move recently for athletes at Division I universities to unionize! This is why I am so worried that this “American cancer” will continue to spread north of the border.

Further, because of the excessive pressure exerted when semi-professionalism is permitted in university sport, there are now more than 400 substances that athletes could be ingesting, as many coaches and athletes seek to bring about improved performance in sport. Anabolic steroids are just the tip of the iceberg. I argue about this daily: we simply should not be placing our Canadian university athletes, male or female, in a position that, because of excessive pressure to win, they are tempted to experiment with potentially harmful drugs.

Veering from the right track

Generally speaking, Canada has done quite well until now. High school teacher-coaches, by and large, can take a bow for preserving athletics of an educational nature in their programs for young men and women. Undoubtedly there has been much support from principals and superintendents too.

But now, I worry that Canadian university and college presidents and deans won’t continue to show as much sense – that they may be unduly swayed by wealthy alumni and a federal government that from time to time seem determined to use the universities as training grounds for international elite sport. We need to ask ourselves what “owning the podium” does to all involved when such a situation prevails.

Our problem is that conflicting forces in our federal government and universities are gradually leading us down the garden path to a Canadian version of the “scholar-athlete” as identified by both the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics in the United States. Many Canadian officials and administrators argue that we are too intelligent and wise to allow the worst elements of the U.S. system to develop within higher education here. This may be true, but I doubt it. I have been naive at times, but I am not stupid. I have personally seen these forces at work in three major U.S. universities.

I taught and coached and also administered departments of physical education in major U.S. universities (Yale as an instructor-coach and at Michigan and Illinois as an administrator); I know first-hand what developed. So, when I had the opportunity to return to Canada as the first dean of the faculty of physical education (now school of kinesiology) at Western in the early 1970s, I heaved a great sigh of relief. The symptoms of an incipient ulcer vanished. I was so happy to return to the situation as envisioned at Western University (by Wes Dunn and committee) in which the new faculty’s undergraduate program, graduate program, intercollegiate athletics program, and physical recreation and intramurals program could strive for a concept of “balanced excellence” in a truly educational environment.

That was then; now, some 40 years later, the situation in higher education has changed markedly in all parts of the country. Western truly has been favored because of the very high quality of its athletic administrators and coaches since the Phys Ed faculty started. Many people (for example, Darwin Semotiuk as both football coach and then athletics administrator) have contributed to this unique development. However, the social forces at work and certain professional concerns in sport have placed us in a true “crossroads dilemma.”

Another issue is that student groups clamor to have athletics – interuniversity and recreational – placed under their aegis. Their concern is understandable, but they should appreciate that dedicated administrators try to preserve both educational and recreational sport. Nevertheless, administrators and faculty members across the land need to be alert to the growing, insidious influence of the media barrage emanating from the U.S., covering the exploits of the majority of universities and colleges where semi-professional athletics prevails.

We need a Canadian Ivy League

The best hope for retaining athletic sanity for some Canadian universities (at least those relating to Ontario interuniversity athletics) would be the establishment of a Canadian Ivy League. This would leave an assortment of other institutions in the East, West and Quebec selling their academic souls for a mess of commercial athletic potage in a wide-open Canadian league. But ask yourself: exactly how does the resultant media attention and notoriety of the present situation benefit these schools? Winning football teams may attract attention, but they do not make a great university.

It isn’t fair to athletes and coaches who do so well within the Ontario Universities’ Athletic Association to have them advance to national playoffs, competing with teams from the other three conferences where athletic scholarships or other financial enticements have been instituted. Many of us want our male and female athletes to continue to do the best that they can within an educational environment. I repeat: semi-professional sport does not a great university make!

Canada, and Canadian universities especially, should be wiser than their commercialized U.S. counterparts with their overall sport programs. Our objective should be solely to profit from the benefits that a sound program of developmental physical activity in sport, exercise, and related expressive activities can bring for all people in our country – accelerated, average or special.

The situation is not a simple one to resolve. However, we certainly don’t want Canada as a nation to ever approximate the former East Germany in the realm of competitive sport – that is, a country with a small population, functioning in a political orbit that encourages the winning of a disproportionate number of Olympic medals in order to justify its political system.

Canada can do reasonably well in international sport and provide healthful physical activity and physical recreation for all its citizens. Achieving such a balance seems difficult to accomplish, but it can be done without perverting secondary or higher education. At the university level, we have sufficient problems while we strive to avoid shabbiness because of inadequate support. Permitting an increasing, unhealthy type of “athletic-scholarship mentality” to creep into university sport would eventually make us ridiculous. It also would have a deleterious effect at the high-school level.

It’s better to be somewhat less well-off financially yet remain honorable and fair as we promote fine educational and recreational sport for all of our students.

Dr. Zeigler, a dual Canadian and U.S. citizen, worked professionally for 72 years in both countries in education and sport. He writes primarily on North American human values and ethics.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Dave Grimshire / April 24, 2014 at 08:25

    So what is the end goal of university sport? Is it a rung up the ladder to professional sport? Does it produce full-time amateur Olympians? Perhaps the goal is to simply use sport in university as a teaching tool for life skills.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if universities clearly stated their athletic program goals and how successful individual students are in achieving those goals.