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Kirk LaPointe: SFU’s Red Leaf football debacle has fans and players red-faced

SFU fumbled the cancellation of its football program, writes Kirk LaPointe.
The SFU Red Leafs had been affiliated with the Lone Star Conference, which has dropped the team

Rare is the day that a community can instantly galvanize as it has in being steamed with Simon Fraser University over – of all things that ought to bring pride and ought not to go awry – the sudden suffocation of its respected football program.

For all its wondrous off-the-field accomplishments, SFU is preoccupied with quite the fumble in whistling the play dead on its 2023 football season and beyond. Its call caught its own team by surprise and has misread the defence. Day by day, the gang-tackling and piling-on grows.

A football program is not a frill for a university, particularly its high-net-worth and high-local-profile alumni and especially when that university is SFU, which has produced more players drafted into the Canadian Football League than any other institution. It is esteemed as the only Canadian university to compete with American schools (in 18 different varsity sports, in fact) in Division II of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Its Burnaby Mountain campus sports a two-year-old $20 million stadium, which will now be just a soccer pitch.

The SFU Red Leafs had been affiliated with the Lone Star Conference (LSC). It announced in February it would be dropped from the LSC after this season but suggested it would play on and find an alternative. Then, two months later, rather than conclude its LSC stint and lobby to compete in the Canadian U Sports division in 2024, SFU stunned most everyone in announcing the program was done after 65 years.

On the video replay, the play-call looks more and more mistaken and the formation shakier and shakier.

The list of notable, reasonable voices appealing for common sense to reconsider has sprawled into an incensed, outraged cluster: Five pro-prospect players now going to court for an injunction to overturn SFU’s decision and for breach of contracts, 11 former players removing their places in the SFU Sports Hall of Fame, dozens of supporters raising hefty sums to support the squad, hundreds signing petitions, and a general conclusion that the school was precipitous and has harmed its institutional athletics reputation.

There is also the kind of business chaos that comes with a suddenly shuttered stable company of employees who have moved house to be with you. The coaches, crack-backed and blindsided, have been offered buyouts and are searching for hard-to-find gigs. The athletes, some of them informed amid their final exams, are scrambling to find the few available scholarships elsewhere to play.

The university’s response has all the empathy of a bloodless tax collector and all the charm of a disgruntled flight attendant. After insisting repeatedly that nothing could be done, it is going to appoint a special advisor to see if, well, something can be done. But in football parlance, it has punted – the advisor won’t report back until after the 2023 season is behind us. Even if the program were reconstituted today, many pieces have scattered for safety. Again, in football parlance, it has taken a knee to kill the clock and end the game.

The handling is out of character with the intelligent, reflective bearing of the university’s admired president, Joy Johnson. More and more attention focuses on the athletic director, Theresa Hanson, who not so long ago at the University of British Columbia was threatening the Thunderbirds hockey program before public blowback and a politically nuanced review prompted sense to prevail.

If you are to believe what you hear and read, the options were not exhausted for the Red Leafs to stay in the game. In the last week, universities offered to play the team this fall. BC Lions owner Amar Doman, already spending prodigiously to restore his team’s stature, declares he is prepared to save another one. The strange thing is that the university says the issue isn’t financial, so something else must be up here.

If I were Doman, I’d open his Surrey training facility to the team, recruit the coaching and support staff, buy the insurance necessary for the players’ security, rent BC Place for the half-dozen or so home games, and make a huge statement about the invaluable contribution to community identity that comes with sport. I’ve never been to an SFU game; I’d buy season tickets for the Red Leaf Renegades. 

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.