Simon Fraser University’s first three months in the National College Athletic Association haven’t been easy.
Stricter eligibility rules have prompted students to leave teams or have made them ineligible. And SFU teams – the only non-U.S. member of the NCAA – have struggled in early season competition.
School officials justify the move out of Canadian varsity sports by arguing it provides better competition, affords cheaper travel and offers more generous scholarships.
“To be the best, athletes need to compete against the best, and I believe that by joining the NCAA, Simon Fraser University is putting themselves in a position to do just that,” Jay Triano, an SFU alumnus and coach of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, told the SFU Athletics website.
But competitively, NCAA teams so far have mostly overmatched SFU. The Clan football team, with 59 new players on a 94-man roster, lost all nine of its conference games by an average of 21 points apiece.
Men’s basketball begins its season with 11 new players on the court. It was, according to the team’s website, “the biggest numerical roster change since the program’s inception.”
Similarly the women’s basketball team starts the season with four returning players on a roster of just nine.
“We had a grad class of eight kids and we lost six more . . . some wanted to get another year out of staying in Canada. Most transferred schools,” said Bruce Langford, the women’s basketball coach. “We lost 11 kids. Losing 11 kids is impossible to replace.”
NCAA rules permit most athletes to play four years of varsity sports, as opposed to the five years of eligibility under Canadian Interuniversity Sport rules. The new regulations meant student athletes entering their fifth year suddenly found themselves without a team.
“Everybody was kind of confused, worried about eligibility, and people were wondering if they were able to play,” said Milos Zivkovic, a former SFU slotback who transferred to the University of Calgary.
New recruits also had to decide whether going to SFU was worth the lost year, or whether to transfer to another Canadian school to play the full five.
Rules and regulations
Compliance with more detailed NCAA regulations has been the biggest difference for students, coaches and administrators, said Scott McLean, SFU’s sports information director.
“It’s so much more regimented in the NCAA . . . you have to make sure all your ‘t’s are crossed and ‘i’s are dotted,” said McLean. “It’s much more reliant on self-reporting in the CIS.”
Boosters – supporters of a particular school, team or player – are also strictly forbidden from participating in the recruiting process. Gifts, off-season job offers and even simple conversations between players and boosters can attract the attention of NCAA compliance officials.
This year the NCAA’s regulations manual for Division II schools and students runs 365 pages.
The sanctions for violating NCAA rules include forfeiture of games, scholarships or post-season play. The SFU athletics website now warns athletes to “ask before you act” to ensure compliance.
SFU has struggled to consistently compete with the NCAA’s higher-caliber teams.
The Clan football team finished the season without a conference win, but earned a 27-20 victory over UBC in the exhibition Shrum Bowl rivalry game. The women’s volleyball team also struggled, ending the year with four wins and 18 losses.
Other teams are either in mid-season or have yet to begin competition.
Expectations were high. SFU enrolls more than double the students of even the biggest GNAC schools.
SFU’s soccer teams, at least, have enjoyed success. The men’s team won its GNAC conference championship and the women finished second.
NCAA schools attract better athletes and supply superior competition by offering lucrative athletic scholarships to recruits.
These full-ride scholarships provide tuition and money for books, housing and meals. In contrast, Canadian schools are limited to offering recruits a tuition and fees waiver.
Alexis Bwenge knows first-hand the value of a full ride. The former B.C. Lions fullback attended the NCAA Division I University of Kentucky on a full scholarship.
“I came out of five years of school with not a dollar owed to anyone and if I had gone to school in Canada it might have been different,” said Bwenge. “The scholarship let me be financially independent.”
The demands of the regular GNAC season make annual SFU-UBC rivalry games, such as the Shrum Bowl and the Barbara Rae Cup in women’s basketball, increasingly tough to schedule.
Rivalry games between the two Vancouver-area schools survived SFU’s switch to American leagues, but it remains to be seen whether coaches will be willing to risk the extra wear on their players for tradition’s sake.
“I’m not so certain how feasible it is, given our scheduling and playoff formulas, to schedule very many CIS games over the years,” said Langford. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think it’s very likely we’ll be able to do that.”