Interim U Sports chief operating officer Dick White has defended the controversial decision to not extend the 25-year-old age cap due to the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled season, ending the careers of student-athletes.
The board of directors voted against the one-year exception despite the Football Technical Committee, made up of affected head coaches and athletic directors, voting unanimously in favour of the fifth year athletes. University of Alberta head coach Chris Morris resigned from the committee in protest of the board decision.
“When I left the board of directors’ call, I said guys are going to get killed on this,” White admitted on Michael Ball’s Growing the Game podcast. “Its a really hard one.”
The decision was delayed a full week and turned on the pages of a 13-page legal memorandum requested by the organization to examine the possible long term effects of an exception. It turned even supporters of COVID-19 amnesty, like White, against that possible path.
“What we were told is that if we made an exception to the rule, the rule itself may end up having to be abandoned as not legally valid,” White explained.
“Someone else can argue that if we make an exception, then the under 25 rule is not valid for reasons of player safety.”
The age cap was originally instituted as a clarification of the previous five years of eligibility in seven years after high school graduation policy, designed to prevent athletes in their late twenties competing against 18-year-olds fresh out of high school.
“Given that having the age cap was very important to the football schools, we didn’t want to risk losing it,” White said.
The worry was that should an exception be granted, it would then be eventually requested by every class of athlete losing a year of play to COVID-19. That would prove the rule arbitrary and make it vulnerable to a legal challenge down the road, potentially erasing it. That would have hurt the safety and athletic opportunities of younger student athletes.
“This decision was made in caring for 3,000 football players, not just 300,” White emphasized. “And it was a tough, hard decision.”
The board and White understand the anger and criticism from many student athletes and supporters. They are prepared for possible legal challenges.
“Challenges are good because either they will affirm that the right decision was made or, if it’s overturned, I’m glad it got a second look,” White said.
He did want to make one thing clear, as a long time supporter of student athletics his heart was breaking for all those who would not get to play.
“I honestly do feel horrible for the student athletes affected,” White said.