South of the Border

Canadian teams are set to join the NCAA. Can they survive as the small fish in a big pond?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Canada in the NCAA

In the past, Canadian universities have been unable to provide their student athletes with full-ride scholarships through Canadian Interuniversity Sport.

Western Media Relations Officer Andy Watson said this is due to the academic component of scholarships in Canada, namely that student athletes must have an 80 per cent average out of high school to get an athletics scholarship.

But this could all change after the National Collegiate Athletic Association approved a pilot program allowing Canadian schools to apply for membership in Division II on Monday in Nashville, Tennessee.

The decision was made after five Canadian schools voiced interest in the program and, on Monday, the current Division II schools voted 258-9 in favour of the program.

“We have had five different Canadian schools that came to a membership committee meeting earlier in 2007 that expressed interest in exploring the idea,” NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said. “Canadian institutions that are interested in exploring NCAA membership can now go through an application process and go through the process of becoming an NCAA member.”

Osburn said the pilot program will test the system for 10 years and then make a final decision based on that test period.

“It will allow the organization to assess the feasibility of permitting Canadian universities to join Division II and assess the viability of having Canadian institutions become active members of the association,” she said.

One of the Canadian schools expressing an interest is the University of British Columbia. It was inspired by the number of students that have left Canada to pursue scholarship opportunities in the United States, according to UBC Athletics communications manager Don Wells.

“We are concerned about the number of Canadian student athletes who leave Canada every year to take advantage of scholarship opportunities at US schools,” he said. “UBC’s interest is rooted in its desire to stem the flow of so many of Canada’s best and brightest athletes south.”

Although the perks of the NCAA are tempting, Watson said that at this point in time, Western is not looking to make the transition.

“Our intention right now is to stay in the CIS,” he said. “But the long-term plan is to hire a new athletic director down the road and it will depend on the will of the new athletic director.”

For those schools looking to join the NCAA, it is not as easy as it seems. The Associate Director for UBC Athletics, Theresa Hanson, can attest to the hard work.

“It has been quite a process,” she said. “Our intention is to apply by June 1, 2008 ... but we need to do our due diligence on campus.

“With any change there will be pros and cons and some hurdles along the way, but we are quite confident that it is the right thing to do for UBC.”

Once a university plans to apply, it looks at its membership options based on conferences, competition and the athletes on a sport-to-sport basis, meaning they will need to make the right decision for each individual sport.

“We have to find a conference that is the right fit in terms of geographic proximity and the sports offered,” Wells said. “We have to do a lot more homework.”

Despite the heavy workload that lies ahead, Hanson said the UBC athletics program is anticipating an exciting endeavour.

“We are excited ... it was very positive,” she said. “We were in Nashville where the vote was taking place, so it was gratifying in that we’ve done quite a bit of leg work.”

Osburn said the reaction to the decision is equally as positive for Division II of the NCAA.

“For the most part it has been welcomed with open arms from our schools,” she said. “It is something that everyone is interested in.

“There are definitely some benefits, not only to the schools that would join from Canada but to Division II itself. It will help grow our membership.”

The NCAA competition is also known for being of higher calibre than Canadian athletics, but Hanson is confident that UBC will be competitive.

Although the change for schools like UBC will be a positive one, the ramifications for the CIS may not be.

In a recent press release, CIS Chief Executive Officer Marg McGregor shared her concerns for the future of the CIS.

“The vast and overwhelming majority of Canadian universities are very proud of their membership in CIS and their involvement in a Canadian league that celebrates academics and athletics,” she said. “If a Canadian university chooses to apply and is accepted as a NCAA member there will be a lot of issues to resolve as this rolls out, and we go our separate ways.

“We plan to confront the difficult issues and align ourselves for the future.”

As far as the future of Mustangs Athletics, Watson does not foresee any major changes in the near future.

“For now we plan to stay in the Ontario University Athletics and CIS,” he said. “We feel that is the best fit for us.”

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