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Simon Fraser University football team players hold a banner after attending a hearing at B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, on May 1. The lawyer representing players and alumni of Simon Fraser University's football team asked a judge to grant an injunction that would require the university to attempt to bring back the axed program.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In its 65-year history, the football program at Simon Fraser University had more players drafted into the CFL than any in the country.

CFL players such as Lui Passaglia, Dave Cutler and Sean Millington were among the many players who emerged from the SFU ranks to star in Canada’s professional football league. Now they are among 11 former players demanding their names be removed from the school’s Sports Hall of Fame over the university’s decision to end the once illustrious program.

As moves go, it’s been as big a public relations disaster as you can imagine.

SFU’s football team had been competing in the U.S. Division II Lone Star Conference but had recently been informed it would not be invited back to play after this coming season. According to the university, it explored other options for the program and concluded there really weren’t any.

So on April 4, school president Joy Johnson announced it was killing the program, unleashing a deluge of criticism from players, alumni and the broader amateur sports community. Ms. Johnson likely never imagined the blowback the school would receive, including a court challenge that has been launched by five existing players.

I spoke to one of the school’s more prominent donors who is furious with both the poor optics of the decision and the horrendous publicity it has wrought. He believes it didn’t have to be this way.

There are many things about the move that don’t make sense, chief among them: Why kill the program now? The Lone Star Conference had put SFU on notice it wasn’t being invited back after the coming season, as it is giving SFU’s spot in the league to a Texas school. So, SFU could have competed this year and, in the meantime, found another league in which to play for 2024. But no. It decided to put the program out of its misery now.

The school said it explored options such as the Canadian university sports league but was told it did not meet existing criteria. Many people dispute this and have urged the school to apply for entry and deal with any impediments if and when they arise.

Meantime, a group of alumni came up with a bridge plan that would see the team play a number of exhibition games in the fall against Canadian and U.S. university competition while an alternative solution is found for 2024. The school was not interested in that idea either.

It seems the school was intent on killing the program and the Lone Star decision gave it the perfect cover. This, even though SFU has a two-year-old stadium that cost $20-million to build in which the team was playing.

This has been a brutal blow to those SFU players who turned down opportunities to play at other schools. Where do they go at this point? Five players deemed to have professional-level prospects hired a lawyer, Peter Gall, who filed an injunction on their behalf in the Supreme Court of B.C. to halt the cancellation.

In a separate civil claim, the players allege SFU breached its contract with the student athletes.

The school has everyone mad at them now, including moms of the players. The so-called SFU Football Mom Squad has had an active social-media presence, insisting that gender bias by female leaders at the school may have played a role in the decision. SFU has vehemently denied this.

A huge uproar forced the school to back down.

SFU is facing something similar now. Football-obsessed TSN reporter Farhan Lalji, an SFU alum and one of the most connected people in the country’s sports world, has been at the centre of efforts to save the program. Meanwhile, a fundraising drive spearheaded by BC Lions owner Amar Doman amassed more than $700,000 for the program.

Battle over Simon Fraser football program heads to B.C. Supreme Court

Two weeks ago the school announced the appointment of a special adviser to review the situation and make recommendations on future opportunities for the football program. But that person isn’t scheduled to report back until the end of the year. Why it needs to take that long to produce such a report is beyond me. It seems like a stalling tactic that would, in effect, ensure there is no football played in 2023.

Many of those involved in efforts to save SFU football feel betrayed and deceived by the school’s leadership. They were told that the door was still open to a plan that would save a 2023 season, in some form, even while decisions were seemingly being made behind those same doors to kill the program for good.

Now would be a good time for SFU to admit to an error in judgment, find a way to field a team in the fall, and look for a league in which to compete in the future.

Editor’s note: (May 12, 2023): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that during a previous position with UBC, SFU athletics director Theresa Hanson tried to shut down the UBC varsity men’s hockey program, which is not true. The article has been updated.

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