By: Mitchell Fox
Are Ontario university athletes elite? Are they (at the very least) amateur? Are they at the top of their class? The answers to these questions appear to be unequivocally yes, but a recent government decision has deemed otherwise.
When the Ontario government announced new measures to be implemented in the face of rising COVID-19 cases thanks to the Omicron variant, one of the most scrutinized parts of the announcement (at least for those interested in sports) came in the decision that all indoor sports activities would be ceased until January 27, 2022, except for certain leagues that are considered to be “elite amateur”.
Shockingly, the leagues deemed “elite amateur” did not include Ontario University Athletics (OUA), which is home to a wide range of sports, teams and athletes from 20 universities across the province. This will pause training and competition for thousands of student athletes across the province.
Once again, university athletes in Ontario are facing an immense barrier to their success, to their mental and physical health and to their education. These athletes have put extensive time, effort and dedication into these sports so that they could pursue their goals and create something for their future. The latest restrictions will serve as yet another obstacle to this.
The decision has garnered a lot of attention from the public and especially from those with close ties to the OUA or sports media. The hashtag #OUAiselite circulated following a statement released by the OUA on its Twitter account. The statement mentions that the OUA is elite and that the government of Ontario is doing a “disservice to the dedication, commitment, and talent” of the student-athletes that compete for its member schools.
And they are not alone. Current and former U-Sports athletes, media members and various sporting organizations have spoken out over the decision, throwing into the chaos of Twitter a call for the government to recognize those that have devoted so much to their sports.The Ryerson Rams posted a similar statement to their Twitter and Instagram pages. This was followed by a heartfelt post from Rams women’s basketball player Mikaela Dodig on her Instagram account. They shared the same general message: the OUA is elite.
One thing should be made clear: all of these people are correct. OUA athletes are not only at the top of their level and age group during their time with the member organizations, but many have gone or will go on to have great careers in their sports. As the OUA highlighted in their statement, 37 former or current OUA athletes competed at the Tokyo Olympics last summer in sports such as swimming, rugby, judo and a number of athletics events. That includes multi-medallist swimmer Kylie Masse, a University of Toronto alumna and former two-time OUA athlete of the year.
To continue the argument that the OUA is elite, former Brock Badgers goaltender Logan Thompson made his first NHL start just one day after the announcement that the OUA would not be considered elite amateur was made. Thompson himself also added his voice to the conversation through Twitter.
The OUA is not only an “elite amateur” league, but a gateway to the next level for prospective professional athletes. To not grant them the permissions of an “elite amateur” league is to undermine the incredible abilities of the athletes and the significance of the league, while also creating further barriers for these so-called “amateur” athletes to progress in their careers.
The question is, if the government does not believe these athletes to be at the “elite amateur” level, then what level do they think they are at? Just amateur? That seems awfully dismissive of the level of ply and determination that they exemplify. So then are they professional? That seems more likely given how difficult it is to earn a spot in sports at the university level, no? Well, then, why aren’t they being treated as such?
If you're interested in what is deemed to be “elite amatuer”, U-Sports reporter Ben Steiner tweeted a list of leagues that fell under this category. It included the Canadian Hockey League, the Provincial Women’s Hockey League, Elite Baseball of Ontario U18, League 1 soccer, Junior “A” lacrosse, Women’s Field Lacrosse U19 “A” League, and OSBA high school basketball. There is little question the OUA belongs to this list, especially considering many athletes move on to the OUA from these leagues.
So then, what drove the government to make the decision that they did and to choose the list of leagues they did? Why have they taken it upon themselves to decide who is “elite amateur”? In what way are they qualified to make that decision when the only thing they seem to be “elite amateurs” at right now is making people on Twitter angry?
No matter what the answers to all of these questions are, it would be awfully nice to have them. This tweet really says it all.
There is little doubt to be left that these athletes are at least “elite amateur”. They may not all be making a living off of these sports but many of these athletes have their eyes set on future opportunities that only university sports can give them. When they are not given the opportunity to train to their fullest potential, they are not given the opportunity to live to their fullest potential.
The OUA provides these athletes with an opportunity to hone skills, develop personality, develop friendships, and open doors to the future. By limiting access to sports and activities, the government is closing all of those doors on just about every athlete in the province.
Two years ago, those doors were slammed shut for the first time. Only recently had they been cracked open again, illuminating even the darkest of tunnels. But by forcing them shut once again, Ontario’s leaders are creating a situation where no one knows how bright that light will shine next time.
At the end of the day, public health is everyone’s priority. But when there are exceptions in place for rules like these, they should pertain to all those that have earned that exceptional status. There is no question that the athletes in the OUA have done that. Now, it’s time for the government to recognize that and to come up with creative solutions to let these athletes do what they do best: compete.
The OUA is elite. So, as many have voiced on Twitter, it is time to “just make it make sense”.