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U Sports grapples with how to play with no student-athletes in class

U Sports grapples with how to play with no student-athletes in class

Josiah Joseph is prepared to live a monk’s life to quarterback the University of Calgary Dinos this year.

Canadian universities are rolling out plans to restrict student access to campuses and increase online learning for the fall semester in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But what does that mean for the roughly 20,000 student-athletes at U Sport’s 56 schools across Canada?

They need to be in the gym and on the field, in physical contact with teammates and opponents, to pursue their sports.

“If U of C is kind of shut down for the fall and we’re in online courses, maybe we put the players in a residence, maybe sign contracts and restrict outside access to prevent the spread,” Joseph mused.

“It would take a lot of individuals to buy in and kind of seclude themselves for the sake of a football season.”

The pivot from Peachland, B.C., says he’s willing to do that to play his fifth and final year of eligibility, and pursue a second straight Vanier Cup.

The U Sports landscape will likely be uneven in 2020-21 as each Canadian university grapples with the public health situation in their respective jurisdictions and the financial impact of the pandemic.

U Sports is also a major employer of coaches with about 900 from coast to coast.

Canadian university athletics is largely funded by student fees, ticket sales, sponsorships, facility rentals and summer camps. All face reductions because of the pandemic.

“Everyone’s been impacted financially. What that is, I don’t think we’re aware yet,” U Sports chief sport officer Lisette Johnson Stapley said.

“What if some institutions choose not to have on-campus activities, so then they don’t have sports but other institutions do?

“What if one conference chooses to not go to a national championship, but the other three are going to go?”

Canada West, the largest geographic conference encompassing the four western provinces, has announced competition modifications for next season.

The football schedule will be reduced from eight regular-season games to five. In other sports, schools will compete against others within their province or geographical area.

“It means B.C. schools will be playing each other predominantly in sports like volleyball, basketball and soccer where there’s a large threshold of teams,” Canada West president Clint Hamilton said.

“We’ll be limiting air travel as much as possible for hockey and football. To be clear, they are formats for one season. Our intent was to relieve financial pressure on members.”

The changes could save each Canada West school between $300,000 and $500,000, he said.

“I think it’s important to show that there’s a plan and there’s hope that this is all going to happen,” University of Manitoba football coach Brian Dobie said.

“But on the other hand, with universities declaring classes online, that poses another piece that adds to the uncertainty.

“Are we going to be able to get back on the field with a group of 90 student-athletes?”

Joseph was more relieved Canada West envisions a season than disappointed at the reduction in games.

“Our team is ready to defend the championship no matter how many games, or if we had to do it with flags on in a parking lot,” he said.

UBC basketball player Keylyn Filewich from Winnipeg took a little longer to land there emotionally.

“We kind of got word they were looking at doing in-province,” she said. ”The main attraction of Canada West, why I chose UBC, is because of the 17 teams you get to play.

“My first initial thoughts were ‘Oh, my last year is going to be completely different’ and I was kind of upset about that, but then at the same time I’m grateful they see us playing this year.”

The heads of the Atlantic, Quebec and Ontario conferences say they’re not yet ready to say under what parameters U Sports will happen next season.

“We know there’s going to be less games and less travel next year because of the budgetary impact already,” the OUA’s Gord Grace said.

“What we don’t know is, of the 20 schools, which ones are going to play their particular sports?”

Quebec has thousands more COVID-19 cases than the four western provinces combined.

While Hamilton and Grace were optimistic some form of sport will happen in their respective conferences next season, the deputy chief executive officer of Reseau du sport etudiant du Quebec (RSEQ) says the future is murkier for its eight U Sport schools.

Four of them are in the greater Montreal area hit hard by the pandemic.

“For us to say we might work on a schedule in June or we might work on a schedule in July, we can’t answer that,” Stephane Boudreau said. “It’s inconceivable for us right now.

“Right now, the question on everybody’s mind is financial. How is everybody going to survive?”

Atlantic University Sport president Phil Currie is waiting for more public-health clarity before the 11 member schools present a plan for their teams.

“There is still uncertainty with go forward restrictions,” Currie told The Canadian Press in an email. “We will not be in a position to provide any concrete plans until later this month or early June.”

While much of the 2019-20 season was complete before COVID-19 shut sport down mid-March, the national men’s and women’s hockey and volleyball championship were cancelled.

Football camps traditionally start the second week of August.

“We have the luxury of time, somewhat, not a lot, but we do have time to figure this out,” Grace said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2020.

— With files from Lori Ewing

Follow @DLSpencer10 on Twitter.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press