A B.C. Supreme Court judge has reserved decision on whether to order Simon Fraser University to reinstate the football team and play the 2023 season.
Five players, Gideone Kremler, Kimo Hiu, Andrew Lirag, Ryan Barthelson and Dayton Ingenhaag, alleged breach of contract and their lawyer asked Justice Michael Stephens on May 1 to reverse the university’s April 4 decision to cancel the 1965-established program.
Peter Gall told Stephens that SFU is legally required to put the team back together and play one more season in the NCAA Division II’s Lone Star Conference or find another league.
“The players agreed to come to SFU on the promise that they could play football and receive education, some of them receive financial aid,” Gall said. “In return, the players made a meaningful commitment to SFU to come to the university and play football there and that benefited SFU.”
Gall said money is not an issue for the university and neither is the number of players: 97 were committed to participate in the 2023 fall camp, slightly down from last year’s 104 and below the 100 ceiling desired by the athletic director.
“We’re not saying that the program has to be continued forever,” Gall said. “What we’re saying in this case is that this decision was premature.”
Gall said if the university was sincere about options to continue the program and further the wellbeing of the players, then SFU should welcome external support from alumni and other supporters, financially or otherwise.
Emily Kirkpatrick, a lawyer acting for SFU, told the court that it was “deeply unfair” that Gall suggested SFU is treating players “as disposable or with contempt for their situation.”
“That could not be further from the truth,” Kirkpatrick said.
She said the university tried to keep the team going until it decided in late March to end the program. Since then, it has taken significant steps to reduce the harm to the players.
Kirkpatrick said players signed financial aid or student athlete agreements, but SFU was not bound by any written contract to provide a football team for as long as they were students at Burnaby Mountain.
“There’s no evidence that they had that conversation that they said, you’ll get into SFU, and we’ll never take it away from them. There’s no evidence of that conversation,” Kirkpatrick said. “What the plaintiffs affidavits do recount are conversations about an opportunity to play in the SFU program.”
She also said that SFU doesn’t have full control over the football program because it is beholden to others, such as the league. Players were free to leave at any time and coaches were free to leave on two weeks notice.
Kirkpatrick said SFU has not filed its response to the players’ April 13 civil claim, but she did quote extensively from an affidavit sworn by athletic director Theresa Hanson. Kirkpatrick outlined the steps the university took since Jan. 25, when the Lone Star Conference informed SFU that it would not be welcome in 2024. The conference cited the cost of travel to SFU, SFU’s lack of competitiveness (an 18-103 win-loss record since joining NCAA in 2010) and that another university wanted to join.
SFU, Central Washington and Western Oregon joined the mainly Texas conference for 2022 after the Great Northwest Athletic Conference ended football. The Red Leafs recorded just one victory last year.
After SFU’s loss of membership was made public Feb. 1, Hanson unsuccessfully inquired in the second half of February about joining the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Neither had an opening for a new member. SFU considered playing as an independent, but Kirkpatrick said Hanson deemed it “virtually impossible,” because it would have possibly meant playing all games on the road.
“Other schools wouldn’t want to incur the cost of traveling to SFU,” Kirkpatrick said.
Dropping to Division III would not have been feasible at SFU, where athletes in other sports compete in Division II and because Division III does not allow scholarships.
Kirkpatrick said Hanson also contacted the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and U Sports about a potential bylaw change or an exemption to admit the SFU team, but did not get a commitment from either.
Finally, Hanson decided in “late March” to cancel the program. When SFU informed players on April 4, they were promised another full year of scholarship eligibility or help in transferring to another university to pursue football.
Since then, Kirkpatrick said, the scholarship offer was extended beyond next year, to the completion of degree studies. Affected students who stay at SFU will also receive priority enrolment, access to academic advisors and tutoring, access to SFU sports medicine and mental health and wellbeing resources.
“Their rights have been run roughshod over, they’ve been ignored,” Gall said. “And yes, it’s nice that the university is providing them with mental health counselling as a result of the mental health issues they might have caused by their illegal action.”
Hanson’s affidavit said SFU budgeted for $572,649 in financial aid to football; 67 student athletes received a combined $438,250 in scholarships. After the program was canceled, coaches received severance pay for without cause termination and the total payout was nearly $90,000.
SFU had budgeted $953,541 to run the football team in 2023, up $185,812 from last year, including $423,605 for salaries and benefits, $399,076 for travel and $125,860 for operating expenses.
BC Lions’ owner Amar Doman has pledged financial support to revive the SFU program, the Canadian Football League’s biggest source of draft picks. Legendary Lions’ kicker Lui Passaglia is among several SFU alumni who are protesting the end of the football team by demanding to be removed from the university’s sports hall of fame.
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