'Out of the blue': Canada Basketball blindsided by FIBA sanctions, $227K fine

Canada Basketball president and CEO Glen Grunwald and men's head coach Nick Nurse said they were "disappointed" Wednesday after FIBA levied sanctions against the program for skipping a FIBA AmeriCup qualifier on advice of medical experts.

Program punished for skipping November qualifier on advice of experts amid pandemic

Canada Basketball president and CEO Glen Grunwald said he was 'disappointed' and blindsided by the FIBA decision on Wednesday to penalize the Canadian program for skipping a November qualifier on the advice of medical experts amid the pandemic. (Alex D'Addese/Hockey Canada)

Canada Basketball president and CEO Glen Grunwald says he was blindsided by sanctions levied against the program on Wednesday.

The International Basketball Federation, or FIBA, fined the Canadian governing body for the sport up to $227,138 and threatened to dock Canada's national team a point in the standings after it chose not to attend a FIBA AmeriCup qualifier in November on the advice of medical experts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're going to try and be positive," Grunwald told CBC Sports. "We're going to appeal this because we do think it's unfair and wrong. But we'll play by the rules as they're dictated. And I hope FIBA can be bigger than what they've been here instead of, you know, trying to be strong arming teams to violate public health protocols."

The third and final stage of AmeriCup qualifying is scheduled to be held Feb. 18-22, with Canada's group — including Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands — playing in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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The games have no bearing on qualification for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. However, failing to qualify for the AmeriCup would end Canada's Paris 2024 Olympic bid.

Even after missing two games, Canada could still clinch its AmeriCup spot with two wins in February. One victory would still open the door, while two straight losses spells the worst-case scenario.

'I didn't expect this'

In November, Canada Basketball said it was working with FIBA to reschedule the games it would miss. Grunwald said progress was made on that front in the interim.

Just two months later, the 62-year-old former Toronto Raptors executive says the program was surprised by its punishment.

"I didn't expect this, actually," Grunwald said. "So then for this to come out of the blue, when I had been advised earlier that if we were not participating because of medical reasons, it would not be any penalties. So, again, very disappointed and a bit disillusioned with the approach."

CBC Sports contacted FIBA, asking a number of questions including how it came to the ruling, what the criteria for the ruling was, as well as if Canada Basketball was made aware of the decision prior to making it public. 

"As proceedings are in progress, FIBA, unfortunately, cannot make any comment on the matter," it said. 

In its statement on Wednesday, FIBA said that Canada would only be fined half the amount and would not lose a point if it attends the February tournament. If not, those sanctions would remain in place.

"It is kind of a threat. We're working really hard and our medical staff has been awesome," Grunwald said. "One of the great things about the Canadian sport community is we're all working together in this very difficult time."

Nick Nurse says he agrees with Canada Basketball's decision not to send players to November's qualifier and is disappointed by the sanctions imposed by the International Basketball Federation. (Will Russell/Getty Images)

Exploring more testing, longer quarantine

Head coach Nick Nurse agreed with Grunwald's sentiments about FIBA's sanctions.

"I back the decision [not to play] by Canada Basketball," he said.

"It was all about player safety for us. And we just didn't feel like we could execute it and keep our players as safe as we wanted to at that point, which I think is understandable.

"We look forward to getting playing hopefully in February and getting on to the Olympic qualifier and going from there."

Grunwald said Canada Basketball is hopeful to participate in that February window and is working with health experts to stiffen protocols from what they were in November. Those measures could include more frequent testing, verification of those tests and longer quarantine periods.

The program is working with lawyers to sort out the next step in the appeals process. An official appeal must be filed within the next 14 days.

"Ideally, we will win the appeal, and we won't have to pay it, but if we do have to pay it, I would hope that FIBA contributes that money to COVID-19 front-line workers and other people that are working in this area where they really do need support instead of pocketing the cash," Grunwald said.

Canada currently sits 1-1 after splitting a pair with the Dominican in February 2020. Games against Cuba and the Virgin Islands had been scheduled for November, with the same opponents set for February 2021. The top three teams in each group qualify for the 2022 FIBA AmeriCup.

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'Dangerous precedent' set by ruling, says COC

Canada Basketball said in a release Wednesday that not only would its participation have directly contradicted the mandates of the federal government "but also the directive of our chief medical officer and other medical professionals throughout Canada's sport system, including those with Canada Basketball, Sport Canada, Own The Podium, the Return to Sport Task Force, and the Canadian Olympic Committee."

As for the COC, CEO and secretary general David Shoemaker said the organization is "extremely disappointed with this ruling."

"Canada Basketball should not face punitive sanctions for prioritizing the health and safety of its athletes, coaches and staff during a pandemic of this magnitude."

Shoemaker went on to say the COC is very concerned with the decision.

"It sets a dangerous precedent and sends the wrong message to sport organizations while the world remains locked in a battle with COVID-19," Shoemaker said to CBC Sports.

"In essence, FIBA is saying that Canada Basketball should have sent its team into harm's way, notwithstanding clear medical and public health advice."

Shoemaker said the ruling could also negatively impact Canada Basketball's finances, which, he said, were "already decimated by COVID-19." That could have lasting consequences for its operational capacity and "funding for programs that grow the game of basketball across Canada."

Shoemaker said the COC continues to stand by Canada Basketball's decision not to travel to the November qualifier in the midst of a pandemic.

With files from CBC Sports' Devin Heroux

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