ONTARIO– Make it make sense.
On Monday morning, albeit later than the scheduled time of 11:00 a.m., Doug Ford and the Ontario Government, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, announced the latest wave of restrictions as the province attempts to keep case counts from surging as the Omicron variant continues to spread.
The province set a record high for new cases on Monday ahead of the announcement.
Among the list of restrictions set forth by the Ontario Government, which is described as a modified Step Two in the province’s reopening plan from 2021, was the closure of sport and recreational facilities. While outdoor establishments are permitted to open with restrictions and spectator occupancy limitations, indoor facilities are to close for at least 21 days as of Wednesday, January 5th.
There’s a line in there that has many of those in post-secondary sport up in arms, and rightfully so.
The line reads, ‘Closing indoor sport and recreational fitness facilities including gyms, except for athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and select professional and elite amateur sport leagues.”
Select professional and elite amateur sport leagues is a broad category, with many leagues across the province having justification to be included in the list, especially on the elite amateur sport leagues end of things.
A deeper dive into the Ontario Government website will show you the list of leagues that fit the government’s criteria. The list of leagues that are deemed elite amateur sport leagues includes:
- Canadian Hockey League
- Elite Baseball League of Ontario – 18U Division
- League 1 Ontario
- Ontario Junior “A” Lacrosse League
- Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association
- Ontario Women’s Field Lacrosse U19 “A” League
- Provincial Women’s Hockey League
The casual sports fan in Canada may not notice any major omissions on the list. That is, unless you participate in a particular indoor sport that isn’t represented above, like volleyball or gymnastics for example.
However, there are two major absences from the list that have a direct relation to several of the leagues that are deemed ‘elite’.
First, there’s no mention of Ontario University Sport.
Second, there’s no mention of Ontario Colleges Athletic Association.
The two conferences of post-secondary sport in the province have not been deemed ‘elite’ by the Ontario Government, meaning they must shut down as of Wednesday, January 5th for at least 21 days to align with the latest restrictions.
Now, both the OUA and OCAA had delayed their seasons as it stands. The OCAA was set to return on January 21st and the OUA a few days later, but the restrictions have now pushed those return dates back and put the entire 2022 restart into question due to the facilities being closed and the student-athletes not being permitted to train unless it’s outside.
Who doesn’t love a -15-degree workout outdoors, anyways?
The conversation online has mostly centered around basketball, with the OSBA being deemed elite, while both the OUA and OCAA have been excluded. The two conferences in Ontario, ones where the top student-athletes in the OSBA strive to play at after their high school careers end, have been deemed ‘less elite’ than the level they currently play at by the Ontario Government.
In terms of hockey, the Canadian Hockey League is permitted to continue playing, but the OUA is a no-go. However, most of the players that currently play in the OUA have come from the CHL.
Again, I say this: make it make sense.
On top of the major two sports, all others are affected at the high school, post-secondary, and even recreational levels. Volleyball. Indoor Soccer. Badminton. Curling. Figure Skating. Track and Field. Swimming. The list goes on and on. Unless you’re training for the Olympics or Paralympics, you’re training for these sports outside in the heart of winter.
For the record, swimmer Kylie Masse is a four-time Olympic medalist for Canada. By the Ontario Government’s definition, Olympian Kylie Masse is deemed ‘elite’ if she’s training for the Olympics or international competition.
Masse is also a former OUA student-athlete at the University of Toronto. If she was still a member of the Varsity Blues and were to train with her Toronto teammates, OUA Kylie Masse wouldn’t be deemed ‘elite’ by the Ontario Government in that instance.
Make. It. Make. Sense.
Monday’s announcement has many associated with both conferences in a tizzy over not being deemed ‘elite’, and rightfully so. It’s led to questions on why, or why not, both leagues haven’t been included on the list of leagues that are permitted to train and operate. It’s led to questions on when, or if, seasons will resume or start at all in the Winter semester. These questions will hopefully be answered in the coming weeks.
The last webpage update from the Ontario Government on its page that lists the permitted leagues was September 14th, 2021. So, there’s still hope that they provide another update in the near future, but all signs point to that not happening anytime soon.
From my perspective, it’s also led to discussions on how both leagues ended up in this scenario.
Is the list a sign of disrespect to post-secondary sport in Canada? Absolutely.
Is this determination a result of a lack of attention, media coverage, or an overall lack of care/concern from the province when it comes to post-secondary sport? Possibly.
Does it have to do with money and/or profitability? In some ways, it’s likely.
Have the conferences done enough advocating and lobbying for themselves during the pandemic? Not even close.
Let’s address the last question first.
At the start of the pandemic, when the first lockdown rolled around (which feels like yesterday in this real-life Groundhog Day simulation we seem to find ourselves in), the OUA was outspoken publicly about the government’s determination of the league not being among those permitted to continue training and/or competing.
The OCAA, on the other hand, has been quiet in the public light from the start. Back in June of 2020, the league announced that it was suspending Fall Sports for the year, and they followed up that announcement in October with the cancellation of the 2020-21 Winter Varsity Season, but there has been no advocation or disagreement on social media for the provincial government to re-think how they view the league.
Now, that’s not to say there hasn’t been lobbying done behind the scenes to change the course of action. It’s likely that Athletic Directors and the senior leadership groups for the conferences have been working the appropriate channels behind the scenes, lobbying for their institutions, but on the surface, there’s little being made available to the general public when it comes to those discussions.
The lack of public information has led many to cast doubt on whether a season will be held in January and has also made student-athletes feel as though they must voice their own concerns for the fear of nobody else fighting for them.
This season, both the OUA and OCAA welcomed back sport in the Fall along with the rest of the conferences across Canada. Aside from the occasional weather delay, it appeared as though that most sports went off without much of a hitch when it comes to the pandemic. The protocols in place seemed to work, and sport was back on campuses across Ontario.
In terms of two-semester sports (basketball and volleyball, in particular), the OCAA was the only league in Canada to suspend the start of regular season play until January.
With hindsight being 20/20, it appears as though things were in fact safer to start the two-semester seasons in the Fall like they normally would in a normal year. The decision to delay the start could have also made the decision to cancel the entire year an easier one than if they had already played half a season.
Monday’s announcement could have been the final nail in the coffin on the 2021-22 season in both conferences, especially if the current restrictions are in place past the three-week threshold of January 26th. I’m hopeful that a season will still be held, both for the OUA and the OCAA, but only time will tell what will happen.
If that’s the case, there could be instances across the OCAA where a student-athlete has been in school for two years, will graduate from their program in April, yet may never compete for their respective program.
Let that sink in for a second.
In terms of the disrespect shown to the conferences in Ontario, Monday’s decision is a slap in the face to anyone associated with a program across the province. For years, there have been many who have been fighting for the conferences, student-athletes, coaches, and programs to get the proper respect, appreciation, and support they all deserve on a consistent basis.
How can the conferences and their constituents continue to fight the good fight when the leagues themselves can’t even get these things from their own government?
Not only is Monday’s decision a sign of disrespect to the conferences, but it also shows a severe lack of concern or care when it comes to the mental health and overall wellbeing of the student-athletes across the province.
Over the last two years, the importance of mental health has come to the forefront on more than one occasion due to the pandemic and its effects on each one of us. Our lives have drastically changed and continue to change on a weekly basis due to what feels like a revolving door of restrictions and lockdowns, at least in the province of Ontario.
Looking back to life in 2020 prior to the pandemic and comparing it to now, there’s no comparison. Lives have been altered forever because of the pandemic, and the mental health of so many has taken a direct hit.
One good (?) thing to come out of the pandemic is how the conversation around mental health has become more socially acceptable. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in some way, and everyone’s mental health has taken a hit, whether you choose to admit it or not.
The student-athletes are no exception to this. Their lives have changed considerably over the last two years, and what they once used as an escape from school, work, or life in general has been taken away from them on countless occasions and is at risk of being taken away again.
For some, sport is their identity. They are known as an athlete, and without sport, a big part of who they are has been taken from them. For some student-athletes in Ontario, they have gone almost two years without any meaningful competition in their lives, leaving a big void in their everyday lives.
They have been without that escape that they’ve become accustomed to. For some, they were using their collegiate careers to prepare themselves for a shot to play professionally and haven’t been able to compete at the highest level because sport was taken away.
On top of sport, the ever-changing rules and regulations around their education would be enough alone to cause mental health issues. From all classes being delivered remotely to a hybrid model, and from the potential of a full in-person return to virtual delivery for the foreseeable future, it’s been an emotional roller coaster for two years.
Now, after seeing how successful the Fall semester was in Ontario, and other conferences across Canada preparing for a return to competition in January while the province limits their access to sport once more (not to mention our neighbours to the south), athletes are again seeing their mental health take a hit.
And, once again, it’s out of their control.
The government has talked about the importance of mental health and staying active during the pandemic, and the effects they have on one another, yet continually take away opportunities for our student-athletes to have meaningful competition.
Yet again, I ask that someone make it make sense.
Let the student-athletes play.
In the wake of Monday’s announcement, those are the common themes that I’ve heard from countless coaches, student-athletes, parents, and fans from across the province, and across Canada, as the U SPORTS and CCAA communities have come together.
Many of those involved feel defeated with the recent news, especially with everything that we had to endure over the last year to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again. From missing the 2020-21 season to getting the vaccine to following all other restrictions, all of which was to put us in a better situation this time around, the news of more restrictions on sport has people feeling frustrated.
Some student-athletes have already moved on to the next chapter of their careers, citing a certain level of doubt that they will play another game this season. Some have yet to suit up for their respective schools and aren’t sure if they’ll even see a day where they don their school colours in meaningful action before the year is out.
Like many, I hope that the Ontario Government rethinks their determination of the OUA and OCAA when it comes to elite amateur sport leagues. As described by one OCAA Head Coach, the current three-week restrictions will push the seasons back close to six weeks due to the loss of valuable training time for the student-athletes.
One can’t expect the student-athletes to come back on January 27th and be ready to compete at the highest level.
If the provincial government does allow for post-secondary sport to continue in Ontario amidst the restrictions, there are ways that seasons can continue safely for all of those involved.
Now, I am no health expert. These are simply ideas that I have come up with that could lead to the 2022 seasons continuing.
First, no fans in attendance at any games. I think that’s a no-brainer at this point.
This point has multiple benefits, if you can call them that. It limits the number of people inside the playing facility, keeping it to the student-athletes, coaches, and team personnel. However, it would put a bigger emphasis on the live streaming product for the schools and could allow both conferences to uphold a minimum standard for their member institutions when it comes to live stream requirements and strengthen their delivery.
Second, realign the divisions to minimize travel wherever possible.
If the Ontario Hockey League is still able to operate with significant travel requirements, then the OUA and OCAA should be able to operate with regional divisions to minimize their own travel. It worked in the Fall semester for the OCAA, so why not replicate that for the Winter term, as well?
Lastly, and this one may pose some issues with the availability and accessibility of rapid antigen tests, put together a plan around the implementation of a testing program ahead of each event for all involved, regardless of vaccination status. Given the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, testing everyone should be a requirement ahead of any sort of competition to ensure the safety of everyone involved, officials included.
I know I’m not the first to come up with these original ideas, and certainly won’t be the last, but I firmly believe that having a plan in place that can be presented to whoever makes the decisions could help reverse the decision and allow for the OUA and OCAA seasons to continue in January.
Let the student-athletes play.
Now, the seasons have not been cancelled yet, but Monday’s announcement and the restriction timeline coupled with the projected start dates for the OUA and OCAA don’t line up well with one another. Again, it remains to be seen as to what will happen in the coming days, but the initial reactions to the latest wave of restrictions aren’t positive.
As someone who works in post-secondary sport and has been advocating for U SPORTS and the CCAA over the years, I firmly stand with the student-athletes, coaches, and everyone else who has been affected by Monday’s announcement. I believe that there’s a way to operate the 2022 season safely, and there’s no doubt in my mind that both the OUA and OCAA should be deemed ‘elite amateur sport leagues’ by the Ontario Government.
This is one person’s opinion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion on the matter, which I welcome and encourage, as any discussion keeps the issue at the forefront.
For the student-athletes across the OUA and OCAA, please know that I stand with you, I hear you, and I feel for you right now. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Monday’s announcement and what potentially lies ahead. My DMs are open on social media if you want to share your thoughts, or you can reach out through our anonymous Google form.
Out of the pandemic, or whenever sport does return at the post-secondary level in Ontario and across Canada, I strongly encourage people to go and check out a game at whatever school is in their area. Go out and support our student-athletes, invest in some merchandise if you can, or invest your time and show them that there are people who genuinely care about these programs and post-secondary sport in Canada.
Going forward, I only have one request for those who make the decisions.
Make it make sense.
- T. Bennett