Sports  Academics over athletics

McGill athletes must prove scholastic excellence to receive scholarships

The role of sports scholarships varies greatly in the university community.  University policies governing the granting of sports scholarships across Canada, as well as the U.S., help determine the make-up of the athletic segments of the student body.  For U.S. universities that are known as big sports schools, the funds for sports scholarships granted by the school are substantially higher because they try to entice the best athletes (rather than the best students) to attend their schools.  Overall, the Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s (CIS) budget for scholarships is lower than the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) budget in the U.S.  However, there are schools in both countries that do not offer scholarships for athletics. In the states, Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale do not take part in the practice, and, here in Canada, McGill does not offer sports scholarships to any of its athletes. Rather, McGill uses their funds for academic scholarships and need-base financial aid. Theoretically, based on McGill’s system, an athlete should only receive a scholarship if they also deserve one based on academic or need-based merit alone.

McGill is a top, internationally-ranked university where the focus is, first and foremost, academics.  The financial aid office at McGill reflects this priority, and distributes its funds accordingly.  “The Raison d’être of a university is for learning.  So, to encourage learning and to encourage scholarship, it’s in line with our mandate,” says McGill’s Financial Aid Director, Judy Stymest.  McGill’s athletic department does try to encourage the best student-athletes – as in the case of applicants who are talented in both the academic and athletic spheres – to come to McGill, with an emphasis on the student aspect.

McGill’s athletic department is trying to target the demographic of athletes who aren’t looking to go pro, but, rather, who want to get a reputable degree and play a sport that they love at the same time. McGill’s Athletic and Recreation Department’s director, Drew Love, concludes, “The reality is that a few student-athletes from across the country choose to go south, for instance, to play their sport.  I think what we would like to do is keep as many of our top student-athletes as possible in Canada and it’s that next group [that we target]. It’s the group that goes off and plays sometimes at Division 2 schools, sometimes they’re Division 1 programs, but they’re not necessarily well-known academic schools, and we think we have an opportunity and a program to give them where they can get a fantastic education and a quality sport experience.” He continues, “the likelihood of them going on and being professional athletes really isn’t a reality anyway. So, for that group, we rather that we convince them and show them why they should stay in Canada.”

As a result of the adminstration’s attitude towards sports scholarships, students with different motivations choose to come here. Logan Murray, of McGill’s women’s ice hockey team, claims, “I could’ve gone to a few American schools, like NCAA [schools]. That’s where they provide scholarships.  But, the teams that I would’ve gone to there are just as good as the team at McGill, but the education wasn’t as good. And [McGill is] reasonably priced too.”

Murray’s fellow teammate and one of McGill’s best hockey forwards, Leslie Oles, is another such student-athlete. Being from Montreal, she claims that one of her reasons for coming to McGill was that she “thought it would be nice to support a Canadian university” as opposed to bringing her talent to another country, such as the U.S.  Katia Clement-Heyra, another Martlet hockey player, is also from Montreal and says that she looked at playing for schools in the U.S.  “Of course, they have more money for the teams over there, so it’s more prestigious to go there, but too much is concentrated on hockey and not concentrated on school at all,” she says.  McGill’s strong academic base also enticed Ryan McKiernan of the men’s ice hockey team to come here.   Having played for a minor league team in Iowa, the Des Moines Buccaneers, he says that he is “considering the pro option and, playing at McGill is not hindering this.  It is just ensuring that I have a solid degree if [going] pro does not work out.”  For many athletes, it is important that they have a solid degree to fall back on because the risk of a career-ending injury is so high.

Even though McGill’s scholarship fund targets those with high academic standing rather than extraordinary athletic ability, this does not mean that there are no injustices in this system.  In order to entice certain athletes to come to McGill, some coaches have been given the ability to offer potential students academic scholarships – regardless of academic ability – if they agree to play for a McGill team. This undermines McGill’s academic standards, and the academic integrity that it admirably tries to uphold, by willingly not offering sports scholarships.

On the other hand, the benefits of offering sports scholarships to McGill athletes may improve their grades, keeping them in superior academic standing.  “I think that the important thing is that we continue to seek the best student-athletes who combine both athletics and academic success.  In order to help them achieve their goal in both of those areas, we think that financial assistance is important. It gives them the opportunity then, particularly during the school year, to really focus on their studies and on their training, and not have to necessarily seek a lot of hours at part-time work or other things,” Drew Love says about McGill’s stance on athletic scholarships.  “What we want to be sure of is that the experience that they have as a student-athlete doesn’t hinder their success academically.”  By not offering its athletes athletic scholarships, McGill may be hurting its students who are passionate about their sports.

McGill is a world-renowned academic institution, ranking 17th internationally on the QS World University Rankings for 2011.  Many student-athletes  choose to study at McGill because of its academic criteria and reputation.  Given this temptation to come to the University, McGill has the appropriate attitude towards its distribution of scholarships. Similar to the top U.S. schools that McGill likes to compare itself to, McGill’s policies on financial assistance fit the University’s main focus – academics.  “Compared to the [big sports schools in the] U.S., it’s a whole different world… The whole culture is quite different,” said Judy Stymest when comparing Canadian and U.S. universities’ criteria in giving entrance scholarships.  “Canadian universities have typically directed their endowments to the leadership scholarships, and everybody is out trying to get the very best students.”