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In my opinion

Why universities should just say no to expensive varsity athletics

Time is up for varsity sports.


The recent news that the cheerleaders team at the of University of Regina was photographed dressed up in absurd and insensitive cowboys and Indian costumes only reconfirms, in my mind, something I have long believed. Universities should end their varsity sports programs. Not least of all because they have become a constant source of distraction and embarrassment.

To be sure, this single event cannot in itself be the grounds for abandoning university sports entirely. It could be an isolated incident. Sadly, this incident is only one in a series of seemingly endless scandals in Canadian university sports.

In March of this year, the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team was suspended after allegations of sexual assault. My own university was embarrassed in a similar way in 2011 when basketball start Phil Nkrumah was charged with assault and other charges after an incident outside a local nightclub. Last November, three players with Université Laval’s celebrated Rouge et Or football team were charged with assault just days after their Vanier Cup victory.

Also last November, the Ryerson hockey team was suspended for drinking on a road trip. And earlier that year, the women’s hockey team at Dalhousie was suspended after a hazing scandal. Indeed, hazing seems to go hand in hand with varsity athletics. In 2012, the Wilfrid Laurier baseball team was suspended following a “dehumanizing” hazing incident, and in December of 2010, St. Thomas University suspended its volleyball team after a hazing party was connected to the death of student Andrew Bartlett. And hazing, in sports, of course, is nothing new.

In June 2012 the University of Waterloo football team was rocked by a steroid scandal: nine players tested positive, and the team was suspended. In fact, doping in Canadian university football is fairly common. According to a CIS report, doping violations in football have been reported every year for the past eight years. And in the past decade, violations have also been reported in Canadian varsity hockey, soccer, volleyball and basketball.

My point is simple: to be an isolated incident, the incident has to be isolated. And when hazing, cheating, and serious allegations of criminal activity happen month after month, year after year at universities across the country – and the examples above are by no means exhaustive – we are not dealing with isolated incidents. We are dealing with an unmistakable pattern.

Of course, sports teams are not the only student organizations where bad behaviour surfaces from time to time. Members of students’ unions, for instance, sometimes behave in embarrassing ways – as when McGill University students insisted one of their executives apologize for so-called micro-aggression and then rescinded their call for that apology. Or worse, when members of the U of Ottawa student union resigned amid accusations that they made sexually graphic remarks about a fellow member of the executive. So why single out sports?

The problem there is that universities need student unions to provide services like tutoring and health plans, and to select students for important committees and boards. Unacceptable incidents should, of course, be prevented whenever possible, and punished appropriately. But we can’t disband student unions.

We can, however, do perfectly well without varsity sports.

We could certainly do without the expense. In 2010-11 alone, Canadian universities spent over $11 million on funding to varsity athletes, about the equivalent of 128 new, full-time professorships, based on average salaries provided by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. And in at least one sport, the CIS is allowing for even larger awards.

And that’s just the cost of scholarships. Coaches are expensive, too (although, to be fair, coach salaries are very low by U.S. standards). In Ontario, where high university salaries must be disclosed, one finds that the coach of Carleton University’s men’s basketball team earned over $150,000 in 2012 – considerably more than the average full professor in Canada, according to the CAUT Almanac. That same year, a coach at McMaster University earned over $120,000. Even at Nipissing University, a small university, the men’s hockey coach netted over $100,000. Their colleagues in B.C. are doing similarly well: the head coach of the Simon Fraser women’s volleyball team made $168,124 in 2012, the basketball coach at UBC earns $126,000 – and so it goes. And these costs are on top of many others – facilities, travel, equipment – all across the country.

The University of Regina has apologized for the insensitive photo. Of course they did. They always do. But the time for apologies is over. It’s time to solve the problem. These cowboys need to ride off into the sunset.

Todd Pettigrew is associate professor of English in the department of languages and letters at Cape Breton University.

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  1. Craig Monk / March 26, 2014 at 14:31

    Having been fortunate enough to do a few of these 750-word pieces for UA, I understand the challenge. But while I welcome a discussion of the topic, I am sorry that the author pursued it in this way. One problem when discussing PSE is that the discussion is too often reduced to the wrong questions asked about money: as if “athletic” funding, from its varied sources, could be immediately redirected to academic staffing. Or the wrong questions asked about campus culture: you might be forgiven here, in spite of the author’s best intentions, for concluding that some people would not behave badly if there was no sanctioned athletic culture in which to participate. Why not question whether, dollar-for-dollar, athletics help us achieve our recruitment and retention aims as well as other, similar initiatives? Or whether, on the whole, a campus culture that includes its dose of athletics, warts and all, is stronger in terms of identity, spirit, and alumni relations than it would be if that activity was replaced with, say, more signature arts or community service initiatives? Personally, I see value in athletic programs that could not be achieved otherwise, but I’d welcome a discussion of how the time and money presently invested could be redeployed, rather than assuming that it could simply be reabsorbed into the core academic mission.

  2. AE / March 26, 2014 at 14:41

    I was very disappointed to read this article for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, this article makes it seems like the only contribution of varsity athletics to institutions is to be a source of scandals and a waste of resources. Varsity sports provide visibility to the university (admittedly negative in the cited cases, which while they appear to be numerous, represent a tiny percentage of varsity sports and institutions) which can be invaluable in terms of marketing the institutions. They also provide events on campus around which a sense of community is built, not only for students, but for alumni and the surrounding communities as well.

    Secondly, the first cited incident involves cheerleading, which as far as I know is not a varsity sport in the CIS or any of it’s regional affiliates (some institutions recognize it as a club sport).

    Thirdly, the article portrays varsity athletes as cheaters and hazers and criminals. While this may be true for the individuals in the cited cases (which if you do the math, account for less than 1% of varsity athletes in Canada…), it is far from the norm. Most student athletes apply themselves in the classroom, work jobs, train incredibly hard to represent their institutions well both in the field of play, as well as being ambassadors for their institutions. For example throughout my post secondary career, I competed as a varsity athlete, held multiple jobs, held first class standing, did camps and clinics in the community, did literacy visits to elementary schools, etc. I also know for a fact that I was not alone in such involvement. As a team, we organized and volunteered at numerous community events, both related and unrelated to sport. I would wager that a much larger number of student-athletes fit this profile, than that of criminals… Yes I did receive some athletic scholarship money ($1500 in my last year of undergrad, was ineligible for any support as a grad student, since there were no funds earmarked for grad student-athletes), but given the time for school and training, it meant that there was limited time to work to earn money to pay for school (still worked some throughout the whole time, but hours were limited).

    The cost of facilities is also cited as varsity related drain, although most varsity facilities get significantly more use for campus recreation activities, than they do for varsity practices and events, they are also often rented out to other groups in the community, and generate income for universities.

    I agree that academics are underfunded at most institutions, and that expenses on things such as varsity sports should be challenged and justified, however I disagree with the premise that there is no benefit to these programs.

    Also ignored in this article is the fact that these crimes exist (probably at a similar frequency) in the non varsity student bodies on many campuses across Canada.

  3. Richard MacKenzie / March 26, 2014 at 14:43

    Two arguments are given for shutting down varsity sports: 1) that jocks frequently do stupid things that give their sport (and varsity sports generally) a bad name; 2) that varsity sports cost a lot of money.

    While I am no fan of varsity sports, I think the first argument is unconvincing. People do stupid things in cars, but no one is clamouring for a ban on cars. Rather, laws are designed with the intention of discouraging people from doing stupid things in cars, there are efforts to educate people about the stupidity of doing stupid things in cars, etc. Returning to varsity sports, rather than banning sports because of the all-too-frequent incidents mentioned in the article, shouldn’t greater effort be made (by sports associations as well as universities) to discourage such incidents? Maybe I am naive, but can’t jocks learn how to behave properly? (I certainly hope so! They are in university!)

    I am more sympathetic to the second argument… though I am sure university administrators would argue that the long-term benefits of varsity sports (enhancing the university “brand” [retch], building a strong base of alumni who will hopefully donate money to the university, etc) make them worth the expense. Cash-strapped cities use similar arguments to justify subsidizing billionaires to help them hire millionaires to play hockey. But that’s another rant…

  4. K. Davison / March 26, 2014 at 14:57

    Although I’m not sure I agree with the writer, I do think it is time we look at cutbacks to organized sports and other more ‘mainstream’ attractions, rather than having most reductions in funding in areas that are more ‘arts’ based (I say ‘arts’ because business and science areas receive much funding as well). Physical activity needs to be encouraged, but it comes in many forms, not just competitive sports; for example: dancing, hiking, yoga. Furthermore, physical health is not the whole picture: we need attention to our mental health as well as spiritual health. I’d like to see a more equitable distribution of campus funds so that all students can benefit–not just those who have athletic ability and aspirations.

  5. Richard Berg / March 26, 2014 at 15:45

    Rather than laboriously going through all the reasoning fallacies in the Pettigrew article, some of which have already been pointed out by other commentators, I’m going to direct my comments to one main point. The only connection the writer sees between sports and academics is that the money that goes to one should go to the other. He might see the connection differently if the behaviour of academics were subjected to the same public scrutiny. Why do we get the kind of misbehaviour of academics that is much discussed more privately? Because not enough of them have played team sports!

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