The Price of Playing Canadian College Basketball

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Shooting

November 1, 2014 – Victoria, BC – ISN’s Lachlan Ross gives an inside look at Canadian college basketball’s eligibility system and its impact on young athletes.

Written and photographed by Lachlan Ross (ISN)

As young Canadian basketball players are slotted into academic settings like blocks of tuition-paying Tetris, not every piece fits. There is currently a lack of opportunities for high calibre hoopers outside the university and college systems, and the unfortunate truth is that many athletes attend schools just to play ball.

Some of these primarily 17 to 24-year-old basketball players excel in both school and sport. For athletes who wish to chase higher education, the system is perfect because they often receive sports scholarships to cover part of their study. But not every player wants a career that comes after diplomas or degrees, and in these athletes’ cases all parties suffer.

To be clear from the start, my focus is solely on the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) and not Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS). For those unfamiliar with the difference between the two leagues, the CIS is Canada’s top amateur sports competition, made up of universities. The CCAA is the division below, and is comprised of community colleges and small-scale universities. While players taking classes solely to play may also be an issue in the CIS, I am writing about the CCAA league because I play in it.

In April 2009, I moved from Australia to Canada hoping to make the University of Victoria (UVic) basketball team. I spent the summer working out with them, but failed to get on the roster. Still wanting to play post-secondary hoops somewhere the following year, I chose to stay at UVic for my schooling. Without a strong local club system in place, as there is in Australia and Europe, I played the highest local level available – university intramurals. With no team practices and only one game per week, the standard of play was low. For me, this didn’t cut it. Despite not liking the basketball, I loved UVic. The writing program was arguably the best in the country, the community was welcoming, and I made friends through living on residence. So I stayed.

After three years of intramurals, I needed to play somewhere better so I decided on Camosun College – a community college in Victoria that plays in the CCAA. Canadian college basketball still involves a similar practice schedule to CIS with two-hour team practices four days a week, games Friday and Saturday, and individual hours working out whenever possible. In total, we spend about 25 hours on basketball per week. The problem with playing college ball is that it requires taking three classes at the school to be athletically eligible. Over the past two years I have taken three classes per semester at the college and two at UVic to balance my athletic and educational pursuits at the highest level I could. Over those two years, my Camosun College tuition cost me $4,775.

Of the 10 classes I took, three contributed to my UVic degree as I had already filled my first and second year electives at the university. Athletic and academic scholarships from the college covered around half of my tuition, though with that money going towards classes that didn’t progress my degree, it is funding I consider wasted.

My coach, Scot Cuachon, says for some athletes the current system is a negative feedback loop. Schools offer scholarships as incentive for athletes to get an education, but the education these athletes want isn’t offered within the college or university: “You do it just because of sport.”

In my first year at Camosun, our conference All-Star point guard, Jordan Elvedahl, took five of his six classes online. He was a stocky workhorse who spent sweat soaked hours more time than his teammates improving anything to help compensate for a five-foot-eight bricklayer’s build. With a blue collared mentality towards not cutting corners, he can only recall two of those six classes – childhood studies and computer programming. Elvedahl wants to be a firefighter. He simply took his classes online so he had time for first aid, radio, and drivers license courses during the day. As a top-level scholarship athlete, Elvedahl was getting around $2,000 a year to play basketball. Every cent of that money he gained to aid his education was sunk into online classes, while he funded the firefighting courses he needed himself.

“My third year,” says Elvedahl, “I knew I was just taking courses to play.”

After three years at Camosun, suiting up with over 30 different teammates, Elvedahl says half to three-quarters of them took electives for the same reason. Just to play ball.

And this isn’t just a problem at Camosun.

“Once somebody graduates from high school, if they’re not academically inclined, there is almost nowhere for them to play,” says Paul Eberhardt, head coach of the 2013-14 CCAA National Champion Langara College Flacons. “Guys just really want to play and be part of a competitive team and be in an elite program, but they’re not really into school, so they’ll take a couple of courses here and there.”

While there isn’t a solely athletic pathway in British Columbia for competitive basketball players, there is for young footballers. Similar to basketball, the top amateur football competition in Canada is the CIS, but for British Columbian football players who don’t wish to play post-secondary there are two options.

The Midget League of the B.C. Community Football Association (ages 16-18) is made up of 11 teams from North Vancouver Island to all over greater Vancouver. Midget League football can be treated the same way some basketball players use the CCAA, as a stepping-stone to the CIS. The advantage of Midget football is high school graduates can take a year off study to reevaluate their educational or career goals while still playing.

The second option for B.C. football players is the Canadian Junior Football League (ages 17-22). With six teams from around the province, this league contains a similar age group to the CIS, but has no academic ties. While universities and colleges offer scholarship opportunities, the CJFL has similar systems. Teams assist players financially if they want to go to trade school, as well as help find jobs and accommodation. Players are able to stay with local billets during the season, and while it costs 400 dollars to play, many athletes find local businesses to sponsor them.

One key advantage the CJFL has over CCAA basketball is the ability for players to pursue trades or apprenticeships while playing competitive football. Coach Eberhardt says CCAA basketball “can disrupt guys that want to get into trades or apprentice programs because we don’t have a trade school that has athletics.” The British Columbian Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Vancouver had a team, but folded their athletics program in 2000.

Another of my past teammates at Camosun, Prabjeet Parmar, is nearing the end of his auto mechanic studies at the college. In his first few years of the Automotive Service Technician Foundation program, he was able to play basketball because he was taking mechanical theory classes. Now that he is in the “co-op” working semester stage of the apprenticeship, the school no longer deems him athletically eligible.

With most of the top Canadian basketball talent heading to the States for college, it means athletes left in Canada are largely playing sport because they love it. Unlike Australia or Europe, where many students take a “gap year” after high school before proceeding to post-secondary studies, in Canada a year off school means a year away from basketball too. Almost all elite high school players decline taking time away from the court, so we are faced with two possible scenarios: many of these players continue attending colleges for courses unsuited to their career needs, or we find a more reasonable solution that bridges the gap between high school and the workforce, while maintaining elite level sport.

A potential solution for basketball could be to copy the CJFL format and introduce a highly competitive junior league with no ties to academic institutions. I believe this kind of league would be the ideal fix, replacing the CCAA with an equivalent club competition. Having an elite club league creates avenues similar to hockey where players can choose the academic route and benefit from CIS scholarships helping them gain a degree, or they can opt for the club system and focus solely on sport.

A second solution would be for basketball to remain solely a post-secondary sport, but to find a flexible middle ground for players pursuing other professions. One of the key differences between colleges and universities is the adaptability colleges show to suit individual students. Programs like high school upgrading and trades courses allow students who would not be accepted into most universities a chance to pursue their education and increase their opportunity of employment. Perhaps colleges could find a way to cooperate with trades or firefighting schools and allow an athlete’s credits to transfer for playing eligibility.

Forcing young adults to enroll in classes often selected by what teammates are taking or what is “easy” doesn’t benefit them. Right now, the price many Canadian college basketball players pay is an overextended route towards their career. While All-Canadian honours academically and athletically might sound best for schools, a confident push past sports and into life is what our young athletes need.

Lachlan Ross is a graduate of the University of Victoria’s writing program and intern with Independent Sports News. More of his work can be found at lachlanross.org.

Follow Lachlan @LachlanRoss89