Breaking the silence

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Jemino Sobers had to make a decision. He could choose from the grand buffet of American schools willing to give him a full ride — or stay close to home and play for peanuts. Like other inner- city youth who use sports as an opportunity for higher education, survival came first for the Malvern high-school student.

He could have been the key recruit that reshaped Ryerson’s struggling basketball program. Instead, he slipped through their fingers. The university barely crossed his mind. Sobers headed across the border to Central Connecticut State University.

“It all comes down to money,” he says.

“We’re so multicultural and we’re so developed here but we’re not pumping enough money into sports and people wonder why athletes are forced to attend school elsewhere.”

Until two years ago, talking about the ethnic makeup of Ryerson’s sports teams was the elephant in the room. It was not openly discussed, but impossible not to notice. The rosters were overwhelmingly white in the midst of one of the most diverse campuses in Ontario.

Even the women’s team, as it stands today, only features one minority player, and the closest thing to a Toronto recruit is from Hamilton.

It doesn’t stop there. Men’s basketball at Ryerson lacked an inner city presence until this season. While the majority of the new coaching staff is made up of visible minorities, the team itself is not reflective of the campus’ diversity.

Toronto players may not be heading to Ryerson in droves, but it is a different story 15 kilometres away at York University.

Their men’s basketball team features a variety of backgrounds in its lineup and a large contingent of Toronto players — a better example of what Ryerson’s team should look like.

But this fact has not gone unnoticed. Ryerson’s official anti-racism task force released a 107 page report earlier this year that found a history of allegedly racist events have potentially hurt Ryerson’s athletic programs and the athletic department’s ability to recruit new teammates.

“How the athletics program deals with racialized students is important for recruitment and the success of the Ryerson teams,” the report says. “The history of what happened with the Ryerson’s women’s basketball team is often raised when student athletes are considering Ryerson.”

The report also pointed out how students of ethnic backgrounds are treated differently also plays a role in the recruitment process citing an incident where black students were “harassed” at a basketball tournament.

Ivan Joseph, Ryerson’s athletic director, believes the problem is found across the board at Ontario universities. He says potential student-athletes will continue to turn away not only from the city, but also the province, if changes are not made to encourage ethnic athletes.

Joseph took over the department two years ago. As Ryerson’s first black athletic director, has made diversity at the varsity level one of his main priorities for reshaping sports at the university. The biggest key to changing the university’s inner city reputation was hiring men’s basketball coach Roy Rana last summer.

He believes the former Eastern Commerce coach will create a serious buzz about Ryerson’s men’s basketball team in the high school community. “People went to Eastern Commerce because they wanted to play for Roy Rana — he is from that community.

And so now we’ve got the buzz because here’s a national team coach, here’s a guy who understands,” Joseph says. “His resume and credentials are impeccable. But it is just as important that we to have our coaches reflect the diversity of our community. I could lie to you and say those things are not a factor. But as a young, black athletic director, those things are important to me.”

Even if Joseph is successful in making the university’s sports teams more reflective of Ryerson’s diverse campus — their second problem can’t be erased without making a serious financial investment.

Xavier Mclaughlin, a coach at Milliken Mills High School in Markham, knows a lot of students from his predominately South Asian and black school that want to play but have little opportunity without financial assistance.

“We live in a real world so thinking does come down to money, infrastructure is lacking in Toronto, but a lot comes down to negative stigmas from the community.”

The athletics department offers scholarships between $500 and $3,500 per year for select students. But that only works out to $15.62 – $109 each week for over 20 hours of service — less than minimum wage. Canadian Interuniversity Sport regulations stand in the way of changing the structure of scholarships.

“Those are the rules,” Joseph says.

“They are really mindful of making sure that Canadian universities don’t become what division one schools in the States became. Where athletes come and play but don’t graduate so they limited it at 3,500.”

It all comes down to risk. Players could receive a scholarship at a Canadian university and be forced to seek loans to pay for the rest of their education.

Or they could accept an offer to an American university that promises the opportunity of graduating with a degree debt-free and the exposure that comes with playing in the U.S.

So it is no surprise that a flood of talented Canadian athletes heads south every fall.

CIS CEO Marg McGregor says the scholarship structure is widely debated from coast to coast. She says the CIS rules dictating the size of scholarships are intended to create a kind of salary cap and not to shut out students who have limited financial support.

But Mclaughlin says in order for minority athletes to stay in Canada, officials need to get serious about offering more support.

“Our children get nothing for playing their sport and are left to fend for themselves,” he says.

“If kids are going to have an chance of getting involved we have to change our perspective on the sport.”

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