Ontario COVID-19 restrictions leave OUA sidelined without elite status

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By Gavin Axelrod

Ontario University Athletics (OUA) players, coaches, management and fans are searching for answers and change after being left off the provincial government’s elite amateur sport list when new restrictions and public health measures were announced on Jan. 3.

Gyms, rinks and fitness facilities are now closed to the public, but a group of seven elite amateur sports leagues are being allowed to continue operating under the new restrictions. The list includes the likes of the Ontario Hockey League, Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) and League 1 Ontario. Athletes training for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games are also able to continue training.

The OUA and Ontario Colleges Athletic Association weren’t granted ‘elite’ status.

“We’ve done everything we can. We knocked on doors, we talked to MPs, but there was no process,” said OUA president and CEO Gord Grace when asked about his reaction to the OUA not being granted elite status. “That’s really our biggest concern, there was no process [and] no transparency in this.” 

A similar version of the Ontario government’s elite amateur list also appeared in 2021, when the province entered the first of its three-step reopening plan, which also didn’t include the OUA. However, Grace said since Ontario quickly moved up to the third step of reopening, the OUA’s plans to hold shortened seasons in 2021-22 weren’t impacted. He also told The Eyeopener there was never an opportunity for the OUA to add itself or register to be on the list.

“That’s really our biggest concern, there was no process [and] no transparency in this” 

The OUA season was paused prior to the Jan. 3 announcement of Ontario’s return to a modified step two of the province’s reopening plan. On Dec. 17, all programming was suspended until Jan. 24 at the earliest so OUA schools could assess the changing landscape surrounding COVID-19.

Grace said teams were able to start training during the first week of January leading up to the originally targeted Jan. 24 restart date. However, new public health restrictions and the return of the elite amateur sport list threw the OUA a curveball it hadn’t anticipated. 

Without elite status, the earliest OUA sport can return is Jan. 27. 

Textbooks and school supplies are in the bags of athletes at Ryerson University, but not in anticipation of a return to in-person classes. Rather, it’s to try and minimize the effects of losing access to training facilities. 

“It’s nearly impossible when you’re going from weight training with unlimited access to weights… to having to use textbooks and a backpack for some people to do squats because they don’t have access to that equipment,” said Rams women’s hockey forward Olivia Giardetti.

Giardetti questioned how a league like the PWHL, which is a feeder system for university hockey teams across the province, could be considered elite and not the OUA. Thirteen of the 25 players on the Rams women’s hockey team are listed as PWHL alumni. 

In addition, while Giardetti is listed as a fourth-year in eligibility, she’s one of a handful Rams women’s hockey players who are in their fifth or sixth year with the team due to the cancellation of the 2020-21 season. After returning to finish their careers on a positive note, she said the potential of not playing again this year is a tough pill to swallow. 

She also said having the routine and enjoyment of sport taken away could leave student athletes feeling defeated and unfulfilled.

Rams men’s volleyball player Lhexen Rabit has experienced the effects of being thrown off his routine firsthand. Rabit said volleyball is his main escape from the stressors in life and schoolwork. But without that outlet, he’s instead turned to meditation, journalling and staying creative through his love of fashion. 

“[Volleyball is] such a big part of me and it’s what I want to do,” said Rabit. “The fact that I can’t continue to do it right now is a bit depressing.” 

When David DeAveiro was hired to coach the Rams men’s basketball team in April 2020, the first thing on his to-do list was to bring a national championship to the university. But after a cancelled 2020-21 season and the current pause, he’s coached just six regular-season games for the Rams. 

Like Giardetti, DeAveiro also questioned how the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association (OSBA)—a league many current Rams played in during their high school days—could be considered elite in contrast to the OUA. 

Rams men’s basketball guard Tyler Sagl tweeted his frustration about the OUA being left off the elite amateur list.

DeAveiro said the current pause could have a potential ripple effect on the OUA’s future. According to him, there are already concerns about what will happen to player eligibility if this season is cancelled, as well as swaying future recruits against joining the conference. 

The Rams bench-boss explained playing in the U.S. is always an attractive option for student athletes coming out of high school, which presents a challenge for Canadian university sport. He added that players may opt to look outside Ontario, where the threat of their athletic seasons being paused due to COVID-19 is less of a concern.  

“It’s nearly impossible when you’re going from weight training with unlimited access to weights…to having to use textbooks and a backpack for some people to do squats”

While DeAveiro’s tenure at Ryerson hasn’t gotten off to the start he imagined, he said his main priority remains the wellbeing of his players. 

“Anytime you can’t do what you really enjoy doing, it’s difficult,” said DeAveiro. “I just think it’s a lot more difficult for them than it is for me.” 

Despite not receiving elite amateur status, the OUA, its athletes and supporters have taken to social media to raise awareness and put pressure on the province to reverse its decision. 

On Jan. 4, the OUA launched its #OUAisELITE campaign. The original tweet put out Jan. 4 received 150 quote tweets, 868 retweets and 1,795 likes as of Jan. 18.  

News of the OUA being left off the province’s elite amateur list was also aired on Sportsnet and was covered by CBC. Canada Basketball also posted a statement on its social media platforms, urging the province of Ontario to review the oversight. 

Further, the Rams athletics program at Ryerson released its own independent statement pushing the Ontario government to reconsider its decision. “The uncertainty surrounding the ‘status’ of OUA athletes in this province has further exacerbated rising mental health concerns, academic anxieties and a growing inability to retain talented student athletes in Canadian university sport,” read part of the statement. 

“It was kind of an emergency when we started doing the campaign,” said Rabit who, along with Giardetti, is a member of the Rams Student-Athlete Advisory Council. “It gives me a lot of hope and validation to see what people are really thinking about the OUA…even for those who don’t play sports.”

“It motivates us to keep moving,” he added. 

On Jan. 12 the OUA also released an open letter titled OUA is Elite, signed by Grace. It prompted athletes, coaches and fans to continue posting on social media, signing petitions and reaching out to local MPPs to express opinions.

However, the Ontario government hasn’t granted the OUA elite amateur status amidst the social media campaign and outpouring of support. 

As the clock ticks on this year’s OUA seasons, Grace said everything is on the table, adding that flexibility is key and the rare nature of the pandemic could force the OUA to get creative. 

“Our number one goal is to give an experience for our winter student athletes, because they’ve already lost out on one,” said Grace.

Comments

  1. This is a very one sided perspective…from the OUA. News coverage should be more balanced and provide more than one, very biased perspsective. The OUA has a mandate to act in the best interests of its members…which are universities, not student-athletes themselves. That should be reported as well.

    There is a reason that in a recent poll of members of the Canadian Student-Athlete Association, 92% said that the OUA makes decisions based on the best interests of its member universities, and 8% said in the best interests of student-athletes.

    The OUA’s decision to “pause” sports in December, with no input from student-athletes is an example of why student-athletes do not believe the OUA acts in their best interests, and also why the Ontario Government made the decision it did. If the OUA was pausing sports, why couldn’t the Ontario Government?

    Student-Athletes need a voice, and that voice is the Student-Athlete Association, not the OUA.
    Also…this issue is not just about the OUA, OCAA student-athletes are also impacted and every bit as elite as OUA athletes, yet you dont’ mention them.

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