While the score may be settled on the field, the wild controversy surrounding the Loney Bowl may play on deep into overtime for U Sports and athletics directors across the country.
On Tuesday, the Acadia Axemen defeated the Saint Mary’s Huskies 45-38 in overtime to win the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) championship game – a game that was not happening as late as Sunday due to a dustup around the eligibility of one player. Acadia stays at home to face the Yates Cup champion Western Mustangs in the Uteck Bowl this weekend.
The weeks-long controversy will lead to a lot of soul searching for sports leaders and administrators across the country to unwind an issue that played out as much in court as it did on the field.
“Yes, the rule is grey. There is tons of work to be done on the constitution and bylaws of U Sports,” said Christine Stapleton, Director of Sport and Recreation Services. “That is not the sexy stuff athletics directors like to spend their time doing. But now, it has become very apparent that, whether we do it, or someone within the context of our profession does it, it needs to be done.
“We want to stay focused on football – on the field – right now. But, certainly, there are some eligibility issues and procedural stuff that needs to be sorted out after the football season is over.”
Earlier this season, U Sports was alerted to the issue with a Saint Mary’s player via a football whistleblower tipline. Saint Mary’s wide receiver Archelaus Jack’s eligibility was called into question because he was once a member of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders practice roster.
U Sports then informed Saint Mary’s of the issue, but backed away and said its own rules “were ambiguous” and informed the university that the governing body would not pursue it further. That agreement, however, threw complaints from other universities about Jack into question.
Saint Mary’s argued they had a binding agreement with U Sports to allow Jack to play. Not all agreed with that interpretation.
According to U Sports Policies and Procedures on Eligibility (Policy Number 184.108.40.206.1.6), football players who participated in a CFL regular season or playoffs “are subject to the charging of eligibility and prohibit participation in U Sports competition within one year of participation.” However, the participation in a CFL training camp, preseason game or being listed on a practice roster until Aug. 15 “are exempt from this rule.”
Jack was a member of the Roughriders practice squad until October 2016. According to the rules, he should have to wait one year before playing for a Canadian university team. Jack played in every Saint Mary’s game this season, including five games prior to the year anniversary of his CFL release on Oct. 11.
Saint Mary’s has argued he was eligible, saying the one-year rule could be interpreted as an academic year as opposed to a calendar year.
On Nov. 9, AUS canceled the game and awarded Acadia a spot in the national semifinals. Saint Mary’s continued to press on in court. On Sunday, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge sided with Saint Mary’s and granted the university a temporary injunction which allowed the game to go on.
In the loss, Jack ended his day as the third leading receiver on the team with four receptions for 58 yards, including a 23-yarder.
Despite the final score, serious questions about U Sports rule clarity, process and even the original eligibility issue remain. Stapleton also sees a larger question athletics directors need to ask themselves going forward.
“Where do we as leaders push back from these swirling controversies and ask, ‘Are we in the right? Are we wrong here?’” she said. “Because if we are wrong, then we need to say we are wrong. That’s what I am learning, observing from this whole thing. I am watching how an institution chooses to proceed. These are the moments where I do little checks with myself, and my colleagues, and ask, ‘If this was us, what would we have done?’ I want to know I would be like-minded with my peers.”
Stapleton did not want to weigh in on the current controversy until it fully plays out – “I am trying to stay focused on football” – but she recognizes a teaching/learning moment when she sees one for an organization.
In 2010, Stapleton was the Associate Director (Athletics) at the University of Waterloo when the school was hit with the largest steroids scandal in U Sports football history.
An investigation by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport showed nine potential anti-doping infractions by members of the Warriors football team. It followed the arrest of a wide receiver for possession and trafficking of anabolic steroids; that player was suspended from football. Waterloo called for the entire team to be tested and suspended its football program for one year.
“I saw how senior leadership managed that situation. I didn’t agree with it at first, but as we lived through it, and came out of it on the other side, it was the right thing to do,” Stapleton said. “We realized we are an educational institution; we did not make good choices; we lacked integrity at the time with the way some of the student-athletes were managing themselves. There were a ton of meaningful educational situations that came out on the other side of that suspension year.
“I went through a controversial situation there; I have been observing this one and have taken note of the different approach.”
U Sports bylaws – the same ones used to spark this this controversy – also state that “it is the moral and ethical responsibility of the Director of Athletics and the coach to be completely cognizant of the spirit and intent of all Eligibility Rules governing interuniversity sport and it is their professional responsibility to convey to all athletes the rationale and philosophical persuasion of any rule in question.”
The most damning part of the controversy, Stapleton continued, is it seems to have lost what is at the heart of the matter – the student-athletes.
“I am watching the game (the Loney Bowl) right now. I am seeing some of the tweets about the young man and fans booing him every time he touches the football,” she said. “That is a shame. It is not his fault. He came there to play football. I do not hold him accountable. He was told he was eligible to play football – that is all he is doing.”