Football

U Sports football age cap, pandemic combine to cut short players' careers

Dozens of Canadian football players dreaming of hoisting the Vanier Cup in their fifth and final year of university eligibility have had those hopes dashed.

Cancellation of championship games spells end for roughly 300 athletes

U Sports has reversed an earlier ruling for football players that would have made nearly 300 of them ineligible when the sport is scheduled to resume in 2021. Most of this fall's season has been cancelled because of health concerns due to the coronavirus. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Dozens of Canadian football players dreaming of hoisting the Vanier Cup in their fifth and final year of university eligibility have had those hopes dashed.

The cancellation of the 2020 national football championship game because of COVID-19, and U Sports not altering an age eligibility rule, accelerates the swan song of roughly 300 football players.

U Sports has said student-athletes whose championships are cancelled in 2020-21 because of the pandemic will not lose a year of eligibility.

But football players have seven years after graduating from high school to complete their five-year eligibility. Many play junior football before entering the university ranks.

University of Calgary quarterback Josiah Joseph of the defending Vanier Cup champion Dinos is among those caught in a rule designed to limit the age of players in Canadian university football to under 25.

Players who turn 25 before Sept. 1 age out of university football. Joseph turns 25 on July 10, 2021.

Approximately 300 players out of 2,335 will be similarly impacted in 2021, according to U Sports.

Joseph hoped U Sports would make an exception for players like him.

"All they would have to do is amend the rule and push it to maybe January first due to extreme circumstances," he told The Canadian Press.

"It's devastating there's that many players in my position."

Reasons for age cap haven't changed, says U Sports

U Sports adopted an age cap in football a decade ago to prevent large gaps in physical maturation and experience between players, and also to create room on rosters for younger players, according to U Sports interim CEO Dick White.

"I really understand the disappointment of the players that this affects," said White, who took over for departed CEO Graham Brown last month.

"Our legal advice that we received was very firm. If we believe the age cap should be 25 for the health and safety of athletes then we should not under any circumstances alter that.

Joseph argues there is no physical or experience difference between a player who turns 25 in March and one who turns 25 in October.

"There's already 25 year olds playing in the league so what's the difference of a couple months?" he asked. "There is none."

U Sport cancelling the 2020 Vanier Cup and the two bowl games — Uteck and Mitchell — that serve as semifinals doesn't stop conferences from playing football in the fall.

But Canada West, Ontario University Athletics and Atlantic University Sport have already declared there won't be football in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Quebec's RSEQ is still working on running football this fall.

'Somewhere you draw the line'

University of Manitoba Bisons head coach Brian Dobie points out fifth-year players aren't the only ones impacted.

Any current university football player whose birthday falls before Sept. 1 will lose a year of football eligibility because of the combination of the pandemic and the current rule.

"What about that kid who had two years left and he just got a starting spot? Now Johnny has one year left. What about Billy who had three years left and now has two years left?" Dobie asked.

"If you have one kid in your program that is negatively affected by this, as a coach you should be outraged. Every kid should count just the same and you should be outraged."

Losing a year of football eligibility also means losing a year of athletic scholarship to pay for school, Dobie added.

"The reality is the age cap is 25 and it's not 26 and somewhere you draw the line," White said.

"If the football institutions wish to re-address the age cap to 26 or no age cap, that's up to our member institutions. There's a process to do that.

"The big picture here was there was a very good reason we put the age cap in. Our board of directors, supported by the legal opinion, said 'don't move it."'

Joseph doesn't buy that rationale.

"It doesn't seem like it's reflecting the interests of a lot of coaches and players that make up U Sports football that make it successful, the guys that are going to be there for five years who are going to graduate that are going to be proud alumni," he said.

"That's what makes up university football in Canada."

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