Wednesday, March 12, 2008

UBC and the NCAA

[I’d meant to write this sooner, but work commitments sapped my time and writing energies. As well, there’s a very good Ubyssey article on the subject; read it here. I also note that there has been some discussion at AMS Exec about the Athletics fee; I’m not sure what it is, and I’m not sure on the latest developments.]

The annual NCAA men’s Division I basketball championship is coming up in a couple weeks. I’m excited. But did you know that UBC could compete in it as soon as a decade from now? More importantly, did you know that, even if you don’t give a rat’s ass about sports or athletics, you should still care?

The NCAA is the US collegiate sports authority. It’s big. There are no non-US members. They recently voted to allow non-US members into Division II (their second tier) on a provisional basis. UBC harbours an intense desire to join the NCAA. Why? Better competition, more exposure, better development opportunities, and fewer restrictions on offering scholarships. In short, Athletics wants to be bigger.

But here’s the thing about joining the NCAA. It’ll cost a ton. Initially, only a few sports would join, which would only require an internal budgetary re-allocation within Athletics. But UBC’s athletics facilities generally are far below the requirements for NCAA competition. They need upgrading. And that’s where students come in.

Right now, students pay a levy of nearly $200 to Athletics and Recreation. There’s long been a simmering undercurrent of resentment about it, as students still have to pay for gym memberships and intramural events. Indeed, UBC is among the only universities in Canada whose students still have to pay for gym passes. UBC Athletics has also long desired to upgrade the SRC, which contains the Bird Coop. But they can’t do it without student support. Nor can they get through any of the other development they need to do in the face of student opposition. Indeed, there’s a chance that an attempt to raise funds could trigger a backlash and threaten their existing mandatory student funding.

Heck, everybody is a being cautious about joining the NCAA, including the NCAA itself. If students opposed it outright, that could easily scuttle the project.

What a smart student leader should see here is leverage. There are many ways in which Athletics can enrich the student experience. They could provide free gym passes to people other than varsity athletes, reduce Storm the Wall fees, co-operate with a renewed SUB to include free student fitness components (see Mike Duncan’s campaign platform). Because right now we have an Athletics department that can’t afford to provide free exercise equipment or affordable intramurals to students, yet is seeking to spend more on performance athletics. And that’s a tension that students can profit from. Indeed, it’s a no-lose proposition. Yes, there have been conversations about a new Athletics fee, but I’m not sure if the NCAA application has, on the student side, played a role in the negotiation. And it should.

I have no idea what the progress of the NCAA decision is. But the deadline to apply for 2009 membership is June 1 – very very soon. Students should demand to know what’s happening, and demand to play a role in the process before it’s too late.