Malachi Emerson remembers the stress he faced in the final weeks of high school and throughout his first two years at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.
A varsity soccer player with the UBCO Heat, Emerson is one of the thousands of Canadian university student-athletes who would have benefited from incoming changes to U Sports scholarship policies.
Under the revised policies, student-athletes will no longer have to hit lofty, sometimes unattainable, academic standards heading into university, and will have more flexibility with grades throughout their post-secondary careers.
“It’s really going to relieve the stress in the last few weeks of high school and first year of university,” he told CBC Sports. “I was scrambling to get my grades higher, and I didn’t end up doing it, but now people won’t have to face that as much.”
The policies include requiring athletic departments to commit a minimum of 45 per cent of athletic scholarships to women’s sports and 45 per cent to men’s, with the remaining 10 per cent available to pivot to either side.
An athletic scholarship “unit” represents 100 per cent of a student’s tuition and mandatory fees for any student-athlete during an academic year. In Ontario University Athletics (OUA), that is capped at a maximum of $5,000 per athlete, while on a national scale, teams are only allotted a specific amount of units, which are then split up among a roster.
The OUA, however, will revisit their structure in upcoming board meetings. The conference has also had a similar gender equity requirement for the last 15 years.
As a result of the recent U SPORTS announcement surrounding policy changes, the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/OUA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#OUA</a> will be reviewing our Athletic Financial Award policies and BIHS Bursary policy, evaluating potential changes effective 2024-25.<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/WeAreONE?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#WeAreONE</a> <a href=”https://t.co/6ONsM7IdbI”>pic.twitter.com/6ONsM7IdbI</a>
“This will allow us to remove some of the barriers to entering students, where they maybe didn’t have the same set of opportunities as others to arrive as a student that’s going to meet the academic threshold to get [athletic] financial support,” U Sports CEO Pierre Arsenault told CBC Sports.
“Once the student-athlete gets in and becomes a first-year student, there will still be requirements, but those could level and equalize a little bit more because now they’re in a system where the university can provide the necessary supports.”
For University of Manitoba Bisons soccer player Jessica Tsai, the adjustment will allow for a more well-rounded effort in academics and athletics, allowing student-athletes to thrive in both areas.
Female Rookie of the Year: Jessica Tsai (@BisonWSOC) ⚽️📹<br><br>Tsai was a phenom in her first year, finishing third in Canada West scoring with 14 points and leading Manitoba. She was named a U SPORTS All-Rookie in the fall.<br><br>🔗 <a href=”https://t.co/D47k5pLaiw”>https://t.co/D47k5pLaiw</a><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/WeAreAllBisons?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#WeAreAllBisons</a> <a href=”https://t.co/enTOuqNfYt”>pic.twitter.com/enTOuqNfYt</a>
“It can be difficult starting the season at the same time as the school year, so sometimes you have to really lean on teammates for tips and tricks to figure it out,” she told CBC Sports about meeting the grade requirements for athletic scholarships.
“School is super important, but for many student-athletes, the sport ends up taking priority during the season, so having this stress off the shoulders will make sure they’re focusing on the sport when they’re required to as well as school throughout the year.”
The altered grade thresholds also help remove systemic barriers that hold some potential student-athletes back. Although the academic requirements to get into many Canadian universities often hover around the 80 per cent mark, the ability to attain financial help could open doors not previously available to some student-athletes.
“As a Black student-athlete, there are some kids that look like me that don’t have the chance to play university sport, but I hope they can see this as a chance for them to pursue their education and athletics,” University of Waterloo Warriors football player Trevon Halstead told CBC Sports. “They can believe in themselves and say, ‘I can go here, and I can pursue my dreams of being a student-athlete.'”
An equitable gender split
As athletic scholarship opportunities open up for more athletes, the new season will also see an equitable share in the distribution of scholarships. While many schools already achieve the minimum thresholds for each gender, some will have to adjust.
The 10 per cent allowance permits athletic departments to support teams requiring more scholarships or athletes, particularly for schools that do not have a gender-balanced athlete count.
Several schools will likely have to make adjustments to further support their men’s sides that do not currently hit the 45 per cent threshold.
“There will be some challenges, and every institution will go through this differently in terms of their current reality,” Arsenault said. “This ultimately allows and creates an equitable scenario for all of our student-athletes for both male and female sports.”
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CHL and other scholarships also available
While U Sports athletic scholarships are the primary funding opportunity for Canadian university student-athletes, they are far from the only available source, often complementing bursaries and student job opportunities. Additionally, men’s hockey players who played in the Canadian Hockey League can receive a year of tuition covered for each year they played in the league.
In 2019-20, 956 graduates utilized funding for their education through the CHL Scholarship Program.
For Toronto Metropolitan University Bold men’s hockey captain Chris Playfair, the CHL funding is critical, in addition to the U Sports athletic scholarship, allowing him to pursue his degree and sport in Toronto despite the high cost of living. At the same time, lowering the grade threshold also benefits men’s hockey players, many of whom graduated high school at 17 or 18 years old but only entered U Sports at 20.
“It can be a challenging balancing being in the junior hockey environment and in high school at 17 or 18 and sometimes those marks don’t totally reflect someone’s academic abilities, so these changes can help,” Playfair, who played five seasons with the CHL’s Windsor Spitfires told CBC Sports. “The CHL and [U Sports] scholarships are a huge help because I probably wouldn’t be here without them.”
The Canadian student-athlete experience is a delicate balance, with an emphasis on academics as well as athletics. However, the new policy changes in 2024-25 could entice more student-athletes to pursue university athletics.
“I had friends who didn’t go to school because their grades were too low to receive funding, and it just wasn’t gonna be an option for them to play,” Emerson said. “This helps open the door to that possibility now.”
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