Why Ontario university, college athletes aren't 'elite' is a question province won't answer

·9 min read
Emma McKinnon plays volleyball for the McMaster University Marauders. (Photo by Michael Roy Foster - image credit)
Emma McKinnon plays volleyball for the McMaster University Marauders. (Photo by Michael Roy Foster - image credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As the next wave of COVID-19 and its variants continues to bombard society, navigation of normalcy continues to be a challenge.

In the latest protocols set out by the Ontario government, we have lost access to in-person dining, gatherings of more than five people, and gyms are closed. Walking outside is an activity that is free but only great if the windchill remains above –15 C. I'm not Albertan so that's the maximum for me.

The new smorgasbord of policies and regulations is not easily understood and can change quickly. Much of my holiday season was spent recovering from Omicron and laughing at TikTok accounts trying to make sense of the new regulations for 2022. Even though said laughing sent me into a coughing fit.

As we approach the third year of the pandemic, there is despair and frustration, and deep concerns for health care workers and educators who are charged with caring for the most vulnerable populations.

It can feel overwhelming when we see and hear the palpable frustration and cries for help from different communities. We worry constantly, about the elderly, about the kids. And about the students who are trying to continue their post-secondary education in a sea of uncertainty and exhausted by the technical glitches of online learning.

On Jan. 3, Ontario's Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries informed the province's university and collegiate athletic programs (20 members of Ontario University Athletics and 27 in the Ontario Colleges Athletics Assocation) that they are not considered to have "elite amateur" status and must immediately stop training programs and game schedules until further notice, or when the Return To Play strategy can be initiated (Jan. 27 at the earliest).

The Return To Play policy came out in 2020, and the seven elite amateur leagues which can continue are the same ones that were announced last year: Ontario Hockey League, Provincial Women's Hockey League, Elite Basketball League of Ontario (U18), League 1, Junior A, Women's Field Lacrosse, and the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association.

At first, the rendered decision seems to be one that could be considered sensible. Isn't the primary role of universities and colleges to protect their students? The transmissibility of Omicron is extremely high and breakthrough cases for vaccinated persons are on the rise. Would we not want the student-athletes to be safe?

But the issue is not that simple, and the Ontario government's decision brought an onslaught of criticism and frustration from athletes and coaches in the OUA and OCAA, some of the best in the country. What differentiates those seven leagues from the others, and why the OUA and OCAA remain excluded, is vague at best.

WATCH | Shireen Ahmed on Ontario's student-athletes losing out:

The manner in which it was communicated fell short for athletes, coaches and both the OUA and OCAA. As well, the selection of the said elite leagues seems arbitrary at best.

In an email to CBC News, Alexandra Adamo, press secretary to Premier Doug Ford, said that the Jan. 3 decision was based on advice from the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore.

"Our government is doing everything possible to blunt the transmission of COVID-19 and the rapidly spreading Omicron variant," she wrote. "These time-limited measures will help in our fight against this virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. This decision, based on advice from the chief medical officer of health, was made to keep people safe."

It still does not answer the question as to why the OUA and OCAA are not included as elite. Or how the seven leagues were decided.

Athletics intended to be secondary

Dr. Cheryl Macdonald, a sports sociologist at St. Mary's University in Halifax, said that Canadian university sport was modelled after the British system and intended to be secondary to learning, but the philosophy and the reality do not always match.

"This leads to disagreements about how necessary it is in a pandemic," Dr. MacDonald wrote in an email to CBC Sports. "I would posit that this tension appears to have played itself out in a disagreement over whether or not university sport is considered 'elite', which sounds like an attack on the athletes' abilities and the time and energy they dedicate to their respective institutions."

In response, some schools are encouraging their students to be vocal on social media with various hashtags such as #OUAisELITE and #OCAAisELITE, and on Monday the OUA put out a moving video with current and former athletes objecting to the non-elite status.

Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's Minister of Heritage, Sports, Culture and Tourism, said in a statement: "We want to make sure that all of our athletes, including those in university sports, can play when it is safe to do so. We will continue to work with colleges and universities to determine how we can best support athletics at that level."

But the reality is that volleyball, hockey and basketball teams that are currently in-season would be under the purview of their respective universities and colleges and use their private facilities, not those of the public. The training sessions can be closed and the teams managed in a way that is responsible yet dynamic.

Christa Eniojukan, head coach of the York Lions women's basketball program, said she has full confidence in York University's adherence to COVID rules.

"At York University our athletic therapist department leads the charge in ensuring that vaccination, screening and regular testing is in place," she said via email, adding the disruption to her squad, which hasn't practised together since Dec. 14, is immense.

Photo by David Dibula
Photo by David Dibula

'Burnt out'

"They are burnt out from all the changes," she said. "It is extremely exhausting to be peaking and thriving in your sport and finally feel like you have gotten back to your best, to have it all taken away again.

"It's the lack of routine and certainty with the loss of regular schedules and expectations that is taking a significant toll on the student-athletes. And they are students first and foremost, thus the shift to online learning adds to the pressures of all this."

Vasay Nadeem is a third-year business administration and marketing student at Sheridan College who also plays on the school's men's basketball team. The six-foot-eight centre said training goes far beyond the physical aspect, providing a sense of belonging that not a lot of other places provide, and that he says is particularly crucial in the isolation of a pandemic.

Nadeem played in a high-level league in high school and does not object to the OSBA being deemed elite, but wonders why OUA and OCAA were left out.

"Those same [OSBA] athletes are striving to get to the post-secondary level, whether it be OUA or OCAA and its declared non-elite?" Nadeem said via email. "There's a whole movement in Canada trying to get athletes to stay in Canada and not go south of the border, but decisions like these are not helping."

Photo by Ben Carmichael
Photo by Ben Carmichael

'OUA level is best of the best'

Nineteen-year-old Emma McKinnon plays right side on the McMaster Marauders women's volleyball team and is on Canada's junior national team. McKinnon, who is studying media arts, chose to stay in Canada despite opportunities to play in the NCAA Division I. The Ontario government's decision has left her perplexed.

"The amount of time and training we put into our sport … I just want to know why we weren't considered elite," she said.

Like the thousands of athletes of the OUA, McKinnon has forged ahead despite the constant pivoting throughout COVID-19. In her senior year of high school in 2020, the volleyball season was halted and her club team, the Halton Hurricanes, were unable to defend their provincial or national titles as both tournaments were cancelled.

McKinnon, who is double vaccinated, continued to work out every day and kept up with online training and observed the recommended protocols. When she entered university, she had the opportunity to room with teammates, which facilitated a connection to the program.

WATCH | Athletes not happy with province's decision:

But there is a sense of loss from her lack of opportunity to play, particularly when it can be done safely like the other seven leagues given elite status.

"It's frustrating to see other athletes doing what you want to be doing," McKinnon said by phone. "You don't know when you are going to play again. It's hard to manage that. Being at volleyball is a way to do something you love for two or two-and-a-half hours a day." McKinnon doesn't know when she can get to the court again. She has no regrets for the rigours of balancing a full-time workload at school and her dedication to her sport. Even though the status of the rest of the season remains unknown.

Nadeem points out the post-secondary athletics programs in Ontario boast Olympians and players in professional leagues.

"The level of athletes at both the OUA and OCAA is the best of the best and can hang with the best of the best," Nadeem said. "There are plenty of athletes that have gone professional in their respective sports out of the OUA and OCAA and to be a part of such leagues is an honour."

Competitive games against other schools seem like a long shot but the athletes are keen to get back to training on the court, on the ice and at the gym. And at least keep their skills sharpened and ready to play — if the seasons are not cancelled altogether.

For McKinnon the best-case scenario is simple: "Training as soon as possible," she said.

It is not hard to imagine why athletes feel like this exclusion is unfounded and unfair. As a former member of a varsity soccer team, the lines of who decides elitism in sport are far removed from the sphere of knowledge of the current provincial government. They aren't banning sports, but instead deciding that student-athletes can't continue to compete.

They are also demonstrating a lack of trust in the schools to implement protocols while allowing certain leagues to play. The inconsistency is mind-numbing, and for McKinnon, Nadeem and Eniojukan, frustrating.

"I do feel I am an elite athlete whether it is declared by the government of Ontario or not," Nadeem said.

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