A new set of tougher recruiting rules in Canadian university sports comes into force on Jan. 1 and features specific regulations for football. But for now, the old system of compliance, where schools were expected to police themselves, remains in place.
The Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) 10-member board of directors voted last Friday in favour of new recruiting guidelines, citing that the former rules had not been reviewed in two decades and had become outdated and vague. During that time span, rich alumni donors have gotten involved and improved football programs at schools such as the University of Laval and the University of British Columbia.
Some of that involvement has also exploited loopholes in rules regarding recruitment. One such gap allowed alumni to hire athletes for off-field jobs and pay them money that could not come from the university's athletic department. That practice has been banned. So, too, has bringing recruits to professional sporting events as well as providing to potential recruits any apparel.
Graham Brown, the newly hired CEO of the CIS, described the changes as "a good start," noting the next step is monitoring and enforcing the rules.
"I've been asked to form a committee that will look at how best to police the rules," Brown said. "Anyone can be on the committee, but I've recommended we have a third party involved. The committee will be up and running in the new year [and ready for the 2016 football season]."
The new rules acknowledge the increased role of alumni money. In football, there are groups such as the 13th Man Foundation at UBC and the 5th Quarter Association at the University of Calgary. Other schools have a well-off financial supporter, such as Stu Lang at the University of Guelph or Jacques Tanguay at Laval.
Inadequate recruiting rules quietly became a topic of debate among CIS officials in the past several years, with football sparking the debate. Schools such as Laval had come to dominate CIS football and schools that followed the Laval model – pouring alumni money into the program – also did well on the field.
UBC was a perennial loser until this year, when it won the Vanier Cup. UBC's star recruit was 19-year-old quarterback Michael O'Connor from Ottawa, who previously had been at a big-time U.S. school, Penn State University.
Last January, UBC pushed hard to attract O'Connor, taking him to a Seattle Seahawks playoff game and dinner with NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. All involved say none of the old rules were broken – but the new rules will not allow for such efforts.
O'Connor, who was MVP of the Vanier Cup victory, also had a summer job working for Aquilini Investment Group, whose president is David Negrin, a UBC alumnus, former football player and 13th Man Foundation member. The new regulations state that athletes hired by alumni must follow a normal application process and "are to be paid at a compensation rate comparable to what the private sector would pay comparable student employment." A subsequent clause disallows athletes employed by alumni to receive free or subsidized housing, or any support for transportation, such as a free car.
Prominent CIS coaches helped craft the new rules, starting with Greg Marshall at the University of Western Ontario, as well as Blake Nill at UBC and Glen Constantin at Laval.
Nill said the old system was something of a "free for all" and lauded the new rules as a "positive change." The self-policing system has "worked well for the most part," he said. Money for anything like the compliance system run by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the United States is unlikely.
"I don't know if it's realistic to have compliance officers," Nill said. "I don't know if there's enough money."
University of Manitoba Bisons' head coach Brian Dobie was asked if the new rules were strong enough to keep everyone honest. He said having rules is one thing; enforcing them requires far more diligence.
"If we're actually going to do it [enforce compliance] we need people who are professionals; people trained in investigations, like police officers," Dobie said. "I think it's unfair to point fingers without knowing facts and truths. I don't know what's happening at every school."