U Sports alters eligibility stance for pandemic-impacted football players

Canadian university football has changed course on its age cap rule and will allow players to complete their fifth year of eligibility in 2021. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Dozens of Canadian university football players facing an abbreviated career because of the COVID-19 pandemic have been given a reprieve.

U Sports changing course on its age cap rule opens the door for players to complete their fifth year of eligibility in 2021.

The 2020 Vanier Cup and the two bowl games that served as semifinals were cancelled because of the pandemic.

The Canada West, Ontario and Atlantic conferences won’t run football schedules this fall, while Quebec’s RSEQ still wants to start varsity sport in September.

Football is the only Canadian university sport with an age cap. Players who turn 25 before Sept. 1 “age out.”

The rule’s purpose is to avoid large differences between players in physical maturation and experience, and to make room on rosters for younger players.

U Sports stated no student-athletes whose 2020 national championships are cancelled will lose a year of eligibility, but football’s age cap forced that scenario upon dozens of players.

Many entering their fifth and final year this cancelled season would age out before they could play in 2021.

U Sports said earlier this month it would not budge on its age-cap rule, to the dismay of the roughly 300 players impacted and their coaches.

But the organization altered its stance Monday, declaring that the football age eligibility rule will be reviewed with a view to changing it.

“The board approved us to have a look at revising the regulations around the current football age cap into something that would still serve the objective, but wouldn’t be as vulnerable to challenge as the current rule,” U Sports interim chief executive officer Dick White told The Canadian Press.

“The important part was we had to have a long-term strategy for us to deal with the age cap. Not just a short-term Band-Aid.

“While we’re doing that work, there was an accommodation made for, our terminology is ‘the 300’, who are the people (that) would be most affected in what we hope is a 2021 season. There has been an accommodation made for them to play.”

Quarterback Josiah Joseph of the defending Vanier Cup champion Calgary Dinos says that’s a welcome development for him and other players in his situation. Joseph turns 25 on July 10, 2021.

“A big weight’s been lifted off my shoulders,” the quarterback said. “I’m sure everyone in my position is kind of feeling the same relief that we could be back with our teams helping lead them and guide them in 2021.

“It has been an emotional roller-coaster. Kind of an unnecessary one, but I’m just glad they finally made the right decision and moved forward with allowing us to play.”

Depending on their birth date, underclassmen could also eventually lose a year of eligibility to the pandemic under the current rule.

“We are well of the dilemma those (players) are caught in, but their dilemma is longer term and we feel we can address it,” White said.

White acknowledged lobbying from member institutions and “heartfelt” letters from athletes were factors in the board of directors deciding late Friday night to take on a revision of football’s age cap.

The revision is expected to be complete by February, 2021.

“This wasn’t a matter of caving in on simply a short-term need,” White explained.

“What the legal opinion was telling us was that if we show we’re willing to make exceptions, we could have a whole pile of people pile through the door and ask us for exceptions to the age rule. We didn’t want that.

“The legal opinion was focusing on the current way we manage the age cap, which is why we’re looking at a different model that may not specify an age, but will more deal with a certain time period you have to play football.”

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