U Sports reverses decision on football player eligibility

U Sports is reversing its decision to take away the final year of eligibility from football players who are currently 24 years old and would have lost their final season due to the pandemic. 

'One-time exception' will allow 25-year-olds to play in 2021

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)

U Sports is reversing its decision to eliminate the final year of eligibility from football players who are currently 24 years old and would have lost their final season due to the pandemic's impact on university sports this fall.

In what officials are calling a "one-time exception," all student-athlete football players who would have been eligible for this season will now be able to compete in the 2021 season. 

"After discussions with our membership, we have determined that it's an appropriate time to explore ways to improve the current safety and participation policies in football with an anticipated completion date of February 2021," said Dick White, interim CEO for U Sports, the governing body for university athletics in Canada.

The original ruling, made earlier this month, would have affected close to 300 players entering their fifth and final year of eligibility who would have missed the chance to play because they would have reached the age of 25.

Football is the only university sport in Canada with an age cap that requires players to be 24 or younger before Sept. 1 each year. 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.

The 2020 Vanier Cup and two bowl games that serve as semifinals were cancelled June 8 because of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, three of the four conferences — Canada West, Ontario and Atlantic — will not run football schedules this fall. Quebec's RSEQ hasn't yet given up on operating a football season in that conference.

Lisette Johnson-Stapley,  chief sport officer for U Sports, said athletic directors across Canada immediately reached out and voiced concerns about the ruling.

"It was the feedback from the athletic directors," she told CBC Sports on Monday. "After that first decision the athletic directors were the ones who reached out and talked through things and then we decided with the board to take the time to revisit it."

Johnson-Stapley said eligibility can be a difficult conversation to navigate but the U Sports board was more united than ever in reversing this decision.

"It's COVID. Everything is different. More than ever, we've come together with our members to discuss different issues and situations," she said. "It's all about the student athletes, their well-being and what's in the best interest of them. But there's still that balance as well with sport and health and safety."

Johnson-Stapley said U Sports will be reviewing all of its eligibility polices as well as safety in the sport.

"Although there are many negative impacts of the COVID pandemic, there are also opportunities to make some changes," Johnson-Stapley said. "It's always about the student-athletes."

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