SFU football players lose injunction but school commits to exploring program reinstatement

Photo courtesy: Simon Fraser Football

The B.C. Supreme Court has denied the injunction that was filed to prevent the cancellation of Simon Fraser University’s football program but it appears as though the process was well-worth it for those looking to save the team.

Though the school previously indicated that its decision to cancel the program was final, SFU has hired Bob Copeland, the senior vice-president of McLaren Global Sport Solutions, to serve as a special advisor tasked with exploring options for the future of football at the school. Copeland has previously consulted for the CFL as well as U Sports.

Copeland will be tasked with a number of responsibilities, which include evaluating the possibility of SFU playing exhibition football games in 2023, assessing the viability of the program being reinstated in 2024, initiating dialogue with select football governing bodies, and issuing a report that will be shared publicly in September 2023.

“I know this has been a difficult time for many people in our community and I am sorry about the impact and stress that the end of our NCAA football program has caused for those affected, especially football student-athletes, staff, and alumni,” said SFU president Dr. Joy Johnson in a video message.

“I’ve been listening to student-athletes, alumni and the football community and I understand your concerns and desire to find a way forward for football at SFU. … I know that we have some work ahead for all of us to rebuild trust, but that’s the work that we are committed to doing as we move forward.”

SFU has also committed to keeping football student-athletes on scholarship through the completion of their degrees. Previously, the school has only committed to maintaining the scholarships through the 2023-2024 academic year. SFU has also reiterated their willingness to help connect players with new teams if they choose to transfer to another institution.

According to sources, a number of Canadian and American institutions were contacted in recent weeks regarding their interest in playing an exhibition game against SFU in 2023 and enough informal agreements were reached to create a schedule. These agreements are contingent upon the football program being reinstated for the upcoming season.

The Simon Fraser University Football Alumni Society (SFUFAS) indicated that it and SFU have agreed to pursue the goal of joining U Sports in 2024 where the football team would play out of Canada West, though football-only membership in the NAIA also remains an option.

“Dr. Joy Johnson and I had a very productive meeting on Wednesday evening. After Dr. Johnson’s statement today, we are satisfied we can take the first steps toward a new working model for football at SFU,” said SFUFAS president Mark Bailey. “We believe we are on a constructive path to finding a conference to play in 2024 and beyond.”

The injunction was filed on April 13 on behalf of five players who argued that the cancellation of the program was a breach of the verbal contract the institution made during the athletic recruiting process. The case was heard on May 1.

SFU announced the immediate discontinuation of its football team on April 4. The school claimed the decision was made primarily due to the Lone Star Conference’s (LSC) choice not to renew SFU’s membership beyond the 2023 season, leaving them without a home for 2024. In her affidavit, athletic director Theresa Hanson also wrote that team’s coaches found it difficult to recruit new players and coaches given the uncertainty surrounding the program’s future.

“This crisis provided the catalyst to unite the entire Canadian football ecosystem in a fashion that rarely happens, but when this occurs, the power of our sport is undeniable,” said Football Canada president Jim Mullin.

“The CFL, CFLPA, Canadian university coaches, CJFL, the provincial organization, Hall of Fame Alumni, families, and the greater community led by politicians of all stripes proclaimed their support from every part of Canada. It was moving to see this kind of unified voice supporting these student-athletes with unwavering passion. The leadership provided by B.C. Lions’ owner Amar Doman went beyond the call with his determination to keep this tradition not only alive but thriving into the future.”

The Red Leafs joined the LSC in 2022 after previously being a member of the Great Northwest Atlantic Conference (GNAC) from 2010 to 2021. The team was originally a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) from 1965 to 2001 and competed in U Sports from 2002 to 2009 before making the move to NCAA Division II.

Hanson told 3DownNation that the school did not formally apply to U Sports prior to cancelling the program due to an “incredibly complex” application process, saying the chances of being granted an “unprecedented” exemption seemed unlikely. U Sports bylaws do not currently allow its members to belong to more than one athletic governing body, though there is optimism that an amendment could be made for SFU.

The SFUFAS recently held a pledge drive that raised over $700,000 to help reinstate the football program, partnering with B.C. Lions’ owner Amar Doman and other community leaders. 800 pledges were made and funds will be collected when and if the football program is reinstated.

3DownNation has requested an interview with Dr. Joy Johnson. This article will be updated accordingly.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.