Coach says U Sports must help football players stuck in pandemic, age-cap trap

U Sports ignored calls to help football players recover a year of eligibility lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the University of Alberta's coach.

Golden Bears head coach Chris Morris has stepped down as head of both a university football coaches' committee and a technical subcommittee.

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He's dismayed by a U Sports board of directors' decision not to alter an age eligibility rule.

"I can't sit on a committee that's designed to guide policy that's going to be completely ignored," Morris told The Canadian Press on Friday.

"They didn't listen to what we were telling them. We told them the exact opposite to what they did."

Football is the only Canadian university sport with an age cap. Players who turn 25 before Sept. 1 "age out."

The rule's purpose is to avoid large differences between players in physical maturation and experience, and to make room on rosters for younger players.

The 2020 Vanier Cup and two bowl games that serve as semifinals were cancelled because of the pandemic.

U Sports has said no student-athletes whose 2020 national championships are cancelled will lose a year of eligibility.

The age cap forces that scenario upon dozens of football players, however.

Canada West, and the Ontario and Atlantic conferences will not run football schedules this fall.

Quebec's RSEQ hasn't yet given up on operating a football season in that conference.

Roughly 300 players entering what would have been their fifth and final year of eligibility this fall would age out before they can recover it in 2021.

University of Calgary quarterback Josiah Joseph said "it's devastating there's that many players in my position."

But depending on their birth date, underclassmen will also eventually lose a year of eligibility to the pandemic.

Losing a year of football eligibility can also mean losing an athletic financial award for that year to pay tuition and fees.

Morris said the football technical subcommittee, made up of athletic directors from across Canada as well as Football Canada representatives, unanimously recommended in June "there being some sort of relief given."

"The recommendation from the committee that everyone who was playing U Sports football be given relief," he said. "That was completely ignored."

Dick White took over as interim U Sports chief executive officer from Graham Brown last month.

He says the board of directors received legal advice advising against altering the age cap.

"The legal advice was quite pointed," White told The Canadian Press.

"Once we begin to alter it for this group of athletes, then there could be another group of athletes affected by it and we run the risk of throwing out the age cap that we've had for a long period of time.

"Yes, there were exceptional circumstances this year, but as we said, the advice received and the conversation around our board table was the age cap of 25 was there for a reason and it should not be altered, fully realizing this is really tough."

Ontario University Athletics president Gord Grace says the U Sports board of directors also went against advice of a management committee.

"I don't know the rationale. Nobody has explained it to me," Grace said. "I'm on what's called the management advisory committee and I can tell you the management advisory committee also recommended to U Sports to grant another year for these guys bumping up to the age cap.

"We found out like everybody else what the board decision was yesterday.

"I think a student-centred decision, an accommodation of some sort could have helped out these individuals."

The board of directors includes representatives from eight schools — four of which don't have a football program — an at-large member and the non-voting White.

University of Victoria athletic director Clint Hamilton, also president of Canada West, is on the board of directors.

He reiterated White's contention that accommodating affected players by altering the age-cap rule opens the rule up to challenge in the future.

"I've always understood the football age cap rule was fundamentally brought in to protect the safety and health of our football playing student-athletes," Hamilton said.

"When I read a very strong legal opinion that stated that an accommodation to our age-cap rule, regardless of circumstance, would severely jeopardize that rule going forward, that was the basis by which I rendered my decision as a board member."

Morris believes the board should show flexibility towards football student-athletes in an unprecedented situation.

"The kids who would be able to play if there was a 2020 season, they should be able to play in 2021," Morris said. "It's not their fault, the pandemic. It's circumstances beyond their control.

"Nobody on the committee wants to go back to having no age rule. We're trying to be sympathetic towards the kids that have had this taken from them by no fault of their own."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2020.

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