Last April, twenty McGill sports teams lost their varsity status. Due to budget cuts and restructuring of the department, McGill Athletics said they simply did not have the money to support the original 49 varsity teams. Combined with a reduction of $147,000 to the Intercollegiate Operating Budget, the department was forced to effect cost-saving changes to the program.
Geoffrey Phillips, Sport Programs Manager, wrote in an email to The Daily, “The McGill sport model is reviewed every five years in order to ensure that all teams still meet their competitive mandate and that all resources (physical, financial, and human) are utilized effectively. Through this exercise we determined that the demands from our 49 varsity teams and competitive clubs exceeded our ability to adequately manage the program in its current structure.”
Phillips went on to explain that Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and the Quebec Student Sports Federation (QSSF), provincial sporting organizations, re-evaluated what programs they offer and have set out a new operational path for the future. “The OUA has removed league play in several sports which leaves our squash, tennis, figure skating, and women’s lacrosse with no comparable university league within which to compete,” wrote Phillips. “These teams, with [the] help of Campus Recreation, are currently reassessing their competitive options to decide how to operate within the new structure.”
Despite Phillips’s insistence that head coaches and club executives received advance warning that restructuring of the varsity program was pending, many teams say that they were blindsided by the decision to be cut from the varsity program.
Wayne Mah, a research assistant in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the former coach of the McGill wrestling team, expressed dismay at not being given any warning prior to the loss of varsity status. The Intercollegiate Office cited lack of competitors as a reason for revoking varsity status. “If I had known our lack of competitors was a problem,” wrote Mah in an email to The Daily. “I could have urged them to compete to ensure the survival of the team.”
In the case of the wrestling team, the loss of varsity status means more than just the loss of access to the varsity weight room, access to the Windsor Clinic available to varsity athletes for medical issues, or having students on the student-athlete honour roll. Without varsity status, the wrestling team has had to fold due to lack of funding, equipment, and practice time. Yet, McGill only provided the team with the practice space and time; the team received their funding and equipment from Wrestling Canada.
“When the McGill Wrestling team was a varsity team…the athletes were not funded and I was not funded by McGill as the coach,” wrote Mah. “The only funding we received was at the end of the season to compete at the CIS [Canadian Interuniversity Sports] Championships. McGill would pay for those who qualified to attend this tournament.” Wrestling Canada provided the team with a wrestling mat essential to their survival, and an annual coaching grant, of which Mah used only a portion for his salary, saving the rest for the operation of the team. However, after the team’s varsity status was revoked, Mah was no longer eligible for the coaching grant, as it is only given to teams that compete in the CIS. Wrestling Canada also took back the wrestling mat it had lent the team. Without funding, equipment, and practice time, the team no longer exists.
While the case of the wrestling team is one of the more extreme examples of the consequences of losing varsity status, every team The Daily spoke with has been negatively affected by the decision.
“It’s kind of like a slap in the face all of the sudden,” said Marilyn Fontaine, a U2 Anatomy and Cell Biology student and assistant coach for the McGill Cheerleading team. “I understand that not everyone can be the elite, but we don’t get funding from the school, [the decision] doesn’t change how much money [McGill Athletics] put into us.”
The McGill Men’s Volleyball team was another team drastically affected by the loss of varsity status. As a Tier 2 varsity team, they had received a $70,000 budget last year, according to Ryan Brant, a U4 Economics student and former player and assistant coach for the team last year. However, Brant said that the administration made it difficult to look at the budget to see exactly where money was being spent.
Justin Cruanes, a U3 Economics student and treasurer of the McGill sailing team, expressed frustration with the system as well. “We’ve been making progress in every domain, everything is going perfectly well for us, and now we’re being punished for it.”
“The big blow was when it was suggested [at a meeting on September 1] that we leave and become a SSMU club,” stated Alex Fyfe, a U3 Economics student and president of the McGill Sailing team.
While he said the team had heard the rumours of reorganization, Fyfe explained that at first, losing varsity status did not sound so bad. “[We were] told [at a meeting in May] that we would have the same funding, that there would be opportunity for more funding…and told that travel regulations would probably be relaxed,” he said. The reality this fall is very different. Instead of receiving their regular $400 funding from McGill Athletics, the team must instead pay a fee of $100 to belong to the competitive club league and retain the McGill name, and travel regulations are even stricter. Teams relegated to the newly-created competitive club league are struggling with whether it is beneficial to remain associated with McGill Athletics. “There is no way to play our sport in the venues that exist in this part of the world with the [travel] restrictions we face right now,” stated Danji Buck-Moore, a U2 Music and Political Science student and former president of the McGill Ultimate Frisbee team.
Despite the McGill Athletics mandate encouraging the involvement of students in athletics, the cut to varsity teams and the new regulations put in place seem to do anything but that. While budgetary issues came up last year and cuts inevitably had to be made to the varsity program, the manner in which the administration went about these cuts highlights major issues of communication between teams and the administration, and calls into question whether the administration has the athletic teams’ best interests at heart.