THE DEATH OF A STUDENT-ATHLETE

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By Tyler Harper

When Matt Fugard spikes a volleyball over the net, there is no applause from the stands. No teammates congratulate him. No announcer dramatically cries his name into a microphone. Matt Fugard is no longer a star. His glory days are over.

In his last year at Ryerson, Fugard plays intramural volleyball every Monday night. “Just to touch the ball,” he says. Watching him play against casual players is like watching a Doberman set loose on a room full of toddlers. Fugard is a good sport; he remains jovial and visibly restrains himself each time he connects with the ball. This isn’t where he belongs.

Less than a year ago, Fugard was a star on Ryerson’s men’s volleyball team when they met McMaster University in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) semi-finals. There was considerable hype around the Rams squad; they were said to be the best chance Ryerson has ever had of winning a provincial championship. Up two sets to one, the Rams were one set away from a birth in the finals.

Then they choked. They lost the fourth set and were embarrassed in the fifth. Some players blamed decisions by the coach. Others brushed off the loss and waited for the next season. Matt Fugard walked away from the team.

“My heart wasn’t into coming back,” he says. “Last year was our year to win. The loss made me think about bigger things than volleyball.” Dejected and disillusioned, Fugard is now in his fourth year of the early childhood education program trying to remember his other reason for coming to Ryerson. “What the goal was when I entered was to teach early elementary level,” he says unconvincingly. “Which is still the plan, I guess.”

He talks nervously about getting into teacher’s college, how difficult the process is, how admittance is based on the interview and not necessarily grades. He mentions teammates who have gone on to play professional volleyball in Europe. Maybe he’ll join them. Maybe he’ll be a teacher. He doesn’t know anymore.

Fugard isn’t the only athlete lost at Ryerson. Sixty-five per cent of university athletes don’t know what to do with their lives following graduation. Ryerson isn’t an athletic school. The university has never won a major championship in any sport. Making the playoffs is considered a good year for any team. But that’s no consolation for athletes like Fugard who give years of hard work to a university that is quick to support winning teams and just as quick to forget them when the ship begins to sink.

Ryerson offers little reward for students participating in athletics. Athletic scholarships at Ryerson (and all of Canada) are meager compared to those found south of the border. Athletes are expected to attend all practices and games (as well as support fellow Rams teams at their games), keep up and excel in academic studies, fundraise for the team when possible and stay passionate about the game.

Nic Beaver, a men’s volleyball player in his fourth-year of international economics and finance, says the trade-off is minimal. “We have to give up time for work to represent the university. It’s our passion and that’s why we do it. I think that’s the only reason sports at Ryerson can sustain itself.”

The official line from Ryerson is that emphasis is placed on students first, athletes second. Jean Kennedy, acting athletic director, is careful to use the term “student-athletes” when describing Ryerson athletes. “Our whole job here is to graduate a student and get them a job,” she says. “You spend all your time training them and they flunk out? I don’t think so.”

In previous years, athletes were required to spend three hours a week doing homework in the Recreation and Athletics Centre (RAC), a study hall system that by Kennedy’s own admission was punitive and often ill supervised. The experimental mentor program now being implemented by the school requires first-year athletes to meet with their senior counterparts once a week for help with homework.

Job postings and corporate recruitment are circulated through athletes via e-mail, and coaches are often helpful in advising career options to curious athletes. But the mentor program is largely where the university’s career services for athletes end.

Last year, Ryerson fired the school’s only sports psychologist. Peter Guy, a high-performance coach and winner of 13 Olympic medals, acted as a career councillor during his four years at Ryerson. He says that most students have a hard time picking a career path while at university, and the problem only gets worse with athletes.

“They don’t have the time to investigate, to explore the world,” Guy said of the athletes’ demanding schedules. “They don’t even have time to find the job to pay the bills.”

Rowing team member and former volleyball player Greg Marszalek was one of the athletes who benefited from Guy’s presence on campus. Guy advised Marszalek to leave a degree in engineering for the radio and television arts program. Marszalek says athletic progress is a low priority to the university. “The whole university mentality in Ontario is school first, athletes second. It’s a different focus than trying to get athletes to go pro. They would rather have them be astronauts.”

The school does, however, help athletes looking for on-campus work. Miruna Muller, a former women’s basketball player finishing the final year of her social work degree, credits the school giving her part-time work as a student. “The reason I was employed at the RAC was because I was an athlete of the school. They knew me from being an athlete so they thought it would be in their advantage to have me,” she says.

Although a knee injury ended her professional career, Muller is an athletic success story for Ryerson; six years ago she was part of the Canadian women’s team at the World University Games in China. “I wanted to have an athletic career … The truth is three quarters of the student athletes that come here are here for their degree first and then for sport.”

Those who come to Ryerson for sport face an uphill battle if they hope to go pro.

Men’s basketball veteran Igor Bakovic, in his last year as a Ram, knows he is playing with added pressure. The success of this season will determine if he plays pro when he graduates. His brother Boris, who is expected to go pro upon graduation, played for the national under-19 team this summer.

Ryan Vandenburg, considered Ryerson’s greatest athlete, is the most recent athlete to move to the big leagues after playing for the blue and gold. He is now one of the highest paid volleyball players in Denmark.

Vlad Matevski, a graduate of the business management school and former Rams basketball player, says players coming through Canadian high schools aren’t ready for university athletics. And so they spend their time here developing basic skills, not advancing to professional calibre. Matevski coaches under-16 basketball and serves as a basketball consultant for George Brown College.

“The kids are not being well coached because they don’t have coaches, they have people who volunteer. When you get to university you are supposed to, as a coach, receive a player that is fundamentally sound and understand the game. Your job is just to polish them instead of teaching them.”

This year’s expectations are, as usual, low for every Rams squad. But until Ryerson administration starts addressing these problems, the only winning side Ryerson has will be Matt Fugard’s intramural team. Which, sadly, seems to be good enough for this university.

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