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Former Team Canada goalie Danielle Dube practices with the UBC women’s hockey team at Varsity Arena, March 6, 2013. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Former Team Canada goalie Danielle Dube practices with the UBC women’s hockey team at Varsity Arena, March 6, 2013. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

UBC varsity sports debate a cacophony of misinformation Add to ...

It is difficult to say what has been more offensive about the manufactured hysteria ignited by the University of B.C.’s varsity sports review: the misinformation being spread by opponents of the exercise or the sexist, old-boys-club condescension directed at the two women behind it.

Either way, the debate has not been pretty to watch, and has, in many ways, demonstrated what can happen when powerful donors who don’t get their own way start dialling up friends in the media.

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For those just joining this tempest in a jock strap, UBC announced last year that it was going to re-evaluate its varsity athletic program with an aim to reduce the array of sports the school supports – a number currently sitting at 29. This alarmed some of the university’s most influential alumni, who quickly imagined a campus without a football or hockey team. Cue the shock and outrage.

Even though the review was far from complete, unfounded rumours began to surface in the media that some of the university’s most storied programs were on the block. This, we were told, so the school could focus on such airy-fairy concepts such as health and wellness. It was intimated by some commentators that Louise Cowin, vice-president of students, and Ashley Howard, UBC athletics director, did not know enough about varsity athletics to be overseeing such an evaluation.

It was even noted that Ms. Howard plays ultimate Frisbee – insert derisive, mocking tone here – a crime that apparently betrays a bias against more traditional sports such as basketball and golf.

The reality of the situation is at odds with much of the reporting. What UBC is doing is no different than what other universities in Canada and the United States have done in recent years – re-evaluate expensive athletics programs in the face of rising revenue pressures. The goal of the UBC examination is to emerge with a strategy that would allow the university to excel in a select number of sports, in much the same way Own the Podium did with the Olympic program in Canada.

It is not such a terrible idea. In fact, it’s terrific. The university imagines that athletics in those chosen programs would ultimately be better supported, getting access to top-level coaching and training. By going this way, the school believes it could attract the most sought-after athletes in these sports.

And as part of this whole exercise, Ms. Cowin and Ms. Howard hope a plan can also be developed to better involve the student body in varsity athletics. A noble ambition and certainly worth pursuing, even if the university has been trying to solve this problem for years.

This is not an insignificant factor in the overall debate.

One might be able to muster some sympathy for the pro-varsity forces if the hint of reducing the number of programs threatened to cause a revolt among students. But the reality is varsity teams at UBC and – most Canadian universities, sadly – don’t get much fan support. The crowd at a UBC football game is often a gathering of friends, family and girlfriends. The men’s basketball team gets semi-respectable crowds, but even then, attendance is abysmally low many nights. Does anyone believe that there is going to be an uprising if there is no men’s volleyball team next year?

UBC is a completely different school from the one that existed when the donors who are complaining most loudly about this review attended. The demographics, for instance, have been radically altered. It’s worth asking students if varsity athletics is important to them or would they rather see the $200 athletics and recreation fee they are dinged with each year re-apportioned. Right now, much of it goes towards underwriting varsity teams they don’t support.

Maybe students would like more of that fee to fund things they are interested in, like ultimate Frisbee.

Too many people associated with the university believe that when it comes to varsity athletics, we should be more like the United States. That’s ridiculous. You can’t even begin to compare the two. Football and basketball programs down south are massive revenue generators. Many schools use that money to help fund other varsity sports. Beyond that, students and alumni wildly support their teams, financially and otherwise.

Still, some of the richest U.S. universities don’t fund as many sports teams as UBC. The University of Washington, for instance, supports only 19. Several U.S. universities have axed sports programs in recent years because of cost pressures. The University of B.C. shouldn’t be any different. That’s why this sports review is not only necessary, but likely long overdue.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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