Canadian school's admittance to NCAA may change rules up north
Simon Fraser became the first non-U.S. school admitted to NCAA Division II
America has always been a destination for most of the top Canadian hoop stars
The decision has Canadian officials scrambling to make the CIS more competitive
Kyle Johnson was a junior guard at West Hill Collegiate Institute, a public high school in eastern Toronto, when he started to make plans to play college basketball in the United States "because Canadian schools don't give full-ride scholarships."
"I wanted to go to university for free and play basketball while doing so," Johnson added.
After a standout career at West Hill and for the Toronto Mission AAU team, Johnson gained NCAA academic clearance in August 2007 and matriculated to Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y., that fall. As a sophomore this past season he was the Blackbirds' second-leading scorer with 13.8 points per game. Johnson explains that there's more exposure and better competition in the U.S., too, but the primary attraction was the full scholarship, which is why last year he was one of 77 Canadians who played NCAA Division I basketball (out of 143 Canadians playing all divisions of NCAA hoops), based on lists compiled by TSN and Canada Basketball.
Such has been the dilemma of all of Canada's top high school athletes. Go to America, where there's better competition, more exposure and a potentially free education; or stay in Canada, which is closer to home but a pricier option, as Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the northern version of the NCAA, limits athletic scholarships to tuition and fees (CIS grants don't include room and board).
A new option emerged on July 10, when the NCAA's Division II admitted its first non-U.S. school, Simon Fraser in Burnaby, B.C., for a transitional period with the ability to become a full member in 2012-13. Division II made the decision to geographically balance its membership, particularly in the West generally and in the Northwest for football. For now, neither Division I nor Division III is considering opening its membership internationally, and with only a handful of Canadian schools considering Division II, the concept of a North American Collegiate Athletic Association is far-fetched.
For Simon Fraser the appeal was better competition, full scholarships and, oddly, geography. Playing competition along the Pacific Coast against closer, albeit American, rivals is more accessible than opponents over the Rocky Mountains into Alberta and the eastern provinces. From the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, four of the nine schools in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference -- SFU's expected home in Division II -- are within two hours driving time. That proximity to the border is why Simon Fraser has already been playing a number of its sports teams in the predominantly America NAIA, even winning the Director's Cup, which is awarded to the best overall program, six times since 1997.
"We're doing more to promote Canada by playing in the United States than we ever do up here," said Dr. David Murphy, SFU's athletic director.
No one expects a mass exodus of Canadian universities to the U.S.; only one other school has publicly declared its interest. The University of British Columbia, which actually petitioned the NCAA for Canadian members in the first place, has openly discussed applying to Division II if it can find a home for its hockey programs (the sport is not sponsored in D-II). "We'd like to give Canadian student-athletes the NCAA experience but have them stay at a Canadian school," athletic director Bob Philip said.
There are a few logistic hurdles, though none are insurmountable. Canadian schools joining the NCAA will have to apply for American academic accreditation and comply with Title IX, an American law. Canadian athletes will forfeit their fifth year of eligibility and have to be mindful of the more comprehensive NCAA qualifying process, which includes evaluations of coursework done in ninth and 10th grades, unlike the CIS process that focuses on 11th and 12th grades. American athletes will all need to get a passport, which, as of June 1, is required for all border crossings.
Simon Fraser's southward migration is already forcing the CIS to reevaluate its practice of prohibiting full athletic scholarships. Noting the different athletic culture, in which college sports in Canada don't draw the same crowds, interest or television contracts that they do in the U.S., CIS president Clint Hamilton says matching the scholarship allotment of NCAA's Division I isn't possible, but increasing scholarship dollars -- and offering at least a few full rides to blue-chip recruits -- is under consideration. About 1,500 Canadians are playing for U.S. colleges, including many of the country's top recruits.
"We want to be the destination of choice for top Canadian student-athletes," said Hamilton, who is also the athletic director at the University of Victoria. "The NCAA decision is an important catalyst for us."