Oh, Canada: Slippery Slope to the Sports Moral High Ground


I spent part of Tuesday afternoon chatting with Toronto Star colleague Cathal Kelly about a column he was writing examining commercialized NCAA athletics, and the way those sports prod fans, administrators and regular folks into irrational decisions.

Like kicking paying customers off a Delta Airlines flight so the University of Florida men’s basketball team could take the plane over and leave town on time.

And while I agree with him that Canadian Interuniversity Sport is a better place to look if you’re the type of sports fan who wants to remove money from the equation and celebrate sports for sports sake, north-of-the border college sports has an underside too.

And sometimes it’s ugly.

Just ask Amanda Redhead.

She’s the college basketball player I profiled in September 2006, and by far the top performer on a lacklustre team at Ryerson University. Heading into her final year of eligibility she was the team’s MVP and a conference all-star on a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in more than a decade, and had gone 17-49  in the previous four seasons.

But when the school year started Redhead quit the team, alleging the team’s coach, Sandra Pothier, repeatedly made racially insensitive remarks. Specifically, Redhead accused Pothier of saying during a one-on-one meeting that Readhead didn’t respect female authority figures because the prevalences of single-parent households in black communities prevented her from doing so.

Redhead said the comment was the final insult in a long and acrimonious relationship with her head coach, but the four teammates, including several starters, who quit alongside her said Pothier had made similar comments to them.

The school confirmed it was investigating the allegations but wouldn’t elaborate when I called seeking comment. And Pothier wouldn’t talk except to dismiss the complainants with the usual epithets.

They’re troublemakers.

They’re individualists.

They have bad attitudes.

And that was when I knew where the truth lay.

I had met one of the players, Josephine Agudo her senior year in high school, when I chronicled a season in the life of the Jean Vanier Mavericks and she served as a team manager. She ran point for the girls team, managed the boys team and was the best shooter in the school, either gender.

Agudo showed up to practice early, shot baskets, managed practice, stayed late and shot more baskets. She was a strong student and she got along easily with players and coaches, who loved her because she knew she was a good player but practiced like she had something to prove.

Josephine Agudo was a lot of things, but a troublemaker wasn’t one of them. And if Pothier was willing to invent faulty labels to put on a kid like that, how else would she bend the truth when confronted about comments not befitting a coach and role model?

What does any of this have to do with the commercialization of college sports?

This:

For all the corruption they invite, the money and pressure that come with NCAA revenue sports make coaching them more of a meritocracy.

At a division-1 program, where wins and losses mean dollars and cents, a situation the one that bubbled over between Pothier and her players doesn’t get time to simmer. Not because big-time NCAA coaches aren’t capable of (alleged) insensitivity. Clearly plenty of them are.

But do you think Nick Saban could lose three quarters of his games and hang on to that $5.5 million salary?

NCAA Football: BCS Championship-Alabama vs LSU

No, Canadian college sports can’t match this. But no, that doesn’t make the Canadian system flawless.

Players told me Pothier didn’t think of herself as culturally insensitive. Instead, they said, she saw her comments a social commentary based on observation. But if she were guiding a 17-49 team at, say, Syracuse, her career as the school’s coach would have ended before her career as an armchair sociologist began.

Any place  winning really matters, 17-49 gets you fired. But in Canadian university sport, where we’re told players and coaches do it for reasons more fundamental than money, a situation like this festers precisely because there’s not much attention paid to wins, losses and the cash tied to them.

This isn’t to label the NCAA’s model superior. I’ve been pretty explicit in my criticism of the play-for-no-pay system these schools have set up. I’m just not sure Canada has much footing on the moral high ground here.

Not when apathy toward sports allows bad coaches to hang onto jobs simply because winning isn’t the point.

Not when Canadian networks simulcast the Bowl Championship Series and expand their coverage of March Madness every year — strange way to show your disgust at a college sports system that generates billions from the unpaid labour of “student athletes.”

And certainly not when Canadians routinely make indefensible decisions based on a devotion to sports that borders on religious.

Rather, devotion to a single sport.

The cost of outfitting, registering and otherwise guiding your kid through a season of hockey is creeping toward five figures yet Canadians manage find the money, even if it means going into debt.  I don’t know what to call that other than mortgaging your kid’s future.

And I don’t know if it’s any less of a misappropriation of funds than Nick Saban’s salary, except that Saban is much more likely to repay Alabama taxpayers with a national title than your kid is to make the NHL.

No, Canada can’t match the U.S. for the school spirit that makes even small college games a big deal in the towns where they take place. And yes, Canada lacks the critical mass of talent that makes NCAA sports the type of high-skill level spectacle that attracts increasing amounts of attention and money from broadcasters, fans and advertisers. It’s impossible to import any of that.

But a college sports system that enables bad-apple coaches, and a society that encourages parents to prioritize sport above education?

Canada doesn’t need to import it.

It’s always been here.

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