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University sports look to unlock potential

McGill Redmen Francis Verreault-Paul (18) warms up during the 2011 CIS Men's Ice Hockey Championship on Saturday, March 26, 2011 in Fredericton, New Brunswick. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mike Dembeck.

Mike Dembeck/CP

Some see sparse crowds and meagre media coverage and question the value of Canadian university sports. Doug Mitchell sees the same things and calls it untapped potential.

As one of the most influential supporters of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, Mitchell believes more can be done to enhance what "is probably the least known thing in the country, great athletes and great competition." To heighten that awareness, the Calgary lawyer and founder of the Borden Ladner Gervais Awards for the country's top university athletes is all for a two-tiered system of competing schools, freer use of scholarships and strong leadership - necessary steps for CIS growth.

"There are more colleges becoming universities in B.C. [UBC-Okanagan, Thompson Rivers]and Mount Royal have become a university here. I've been told Grant MacEwan [in Edmonton]wants to come into Canada West," Mitchell said of the changing Canada West landscape. "We could have teams coming up [to a first division]or falling back. It could be like soccer in the U.K."

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The idea of operating a two-tiered athletic system has been hotly debated in recent years. Interest in the concept spiked again when the University of British Columbia considered switching to the National Collegiate Athletic Conference and playing in the Division II Great Northwestern Athletic Conference - for a higher class of opposition, it argued.

Just last month, though, UBC president Stephen Toope announced his school would be staying in the Canada West Universities Athletic Association and that it "will join four other large universities in the conference to institute a two-tiered competition system beginning in 2012-13."

How that happens remains unknown. Canada West made the decision two years ago to split into two conferences and has formed a committee of university presidents and athletic directors to decide how best to do that. Given the many variables involved - the number of schools, their differing athletic departments and student enrolments - the two-association plan likely won't be determined and instituted until 2013-14.

"We want to take the lead [nationally]" Canada West president Sandy Slavin said. "We're doing this because we're having so much growth in Western Canada."

As for the athletes' financial awards, UBC asked for more flexibility "in how scholarships can be awarded within teams, while maintaining an overall [financial]cap," Toope said. Mitchell, a UBC law school graduate and a former Thunderbirds football player, is in agreement and disagreement with his alma mater.

"I was asked if I'd send a letter approving [UBC's move to the NCAA] There was a report prepared and I thought it was very poorly done," Mitchell said. "It said UBC needs better competition. My research showed the last national championship [for UBC]was in 1997 in football. It's been 40 years in men's hockey, 38 years in men's basketball, 27 years in men's volleyball. I've been outspoken against moving. I got crossed off a few Christmas card lists at UBC."

Mitchell, however, approves of the two-tiered system coupled with flexible scholarships because it could lead to "a Sweet 16 format, a regional championship and national championship in all the major sports." He sees that happening in partnership with a national sports network - beyond TSN's coverage of football's Vanier Cup - and "a very thorough marketing campaign and have the universities buy into it."

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He doesn't believe the CIS will experience the same abuses and violations that regularly jar the NCAA.

"Some people are worried that would lead to athletes having degrees in basket weaving but I don't they should ever touch the eligibility [standards] The athletes still have to qualify academically to play," he said, noting there are universities now that don't use the maximum amount of scholarship dollars available to them. (Ironically, UBC's own 2011 consultation document showed it awarded just 11 per cent of the CIS scholarship limit.)

The CIS will be front and centre Monday night when BLG presents its awards for the 19th consecutive year. The male and female winners are acknowledged for their athleticism, leadership and sportsmanship and are given a $10,000 postgraduate scholarship. The recipients are chosen by an independent board. Mitchell can see a similar approach working for the CIS.

"I think there should be a group of business people as a sounding board to provide assistance and ideas. There are a lot of former athletes who are successful in various fields. They can help with sponsorships and getting more corporate involvement," Mitchell said.

"[University athletics]has such immense potential. It needs someone to pull it together. Will it be easy? No, it won't. But there's an advantage to building university spirit and turning out good people, and you can do it through sports."

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1997 with an extensive sports background having covered Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, Summer and Winter Olympics, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1989 Super Bowl riot and the 1989 earthquake World Series. More

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