LANGLEY — Proponents from both sides agree on one thing, and that is at its fundamental core, it’s the biggest issue ever put to vote in the history of B.C. high school sports.
On February 26, B.C. School Sports announced a proposal to be voted on by its membership at its upcoming April 19th annual general meeting which would effectively allow it to dissolve the various independent sports commissions and assume umbrella control of all 19 of its member sports, including all of their respective provincial championship tournaments.
The proposal’s carefully documented paper trail had begun some 13 months ago, and although not a topic among coaches and those in the daily trenches of the high school sports world, it was nonetheless a process which BCSS executive director Jordan Abney stresses was one developed with transparency and with regular updates to administrators and athletics directors around the province throughout the duration of its development.
Yet it wasn’t until that final proposal was sent out to the membership about two weeks ago that it became news that generations-old commissions like the B.C. High School Boys Basketball Association and the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association, along with every other independent sports commission, would cease to exist if the proposal passed a two-thirds vote from its 460-school membership.
From the standpoint of B.C. School Sports, its proposal for a change in governance is based on its belief that a more streamlined entity will allow it to operate with greater efficiency and to reign in what it feels has been a growing separation from “education-centred athletics.”
Yet from the standpoint of many of the province’s various sports commissions, there are feelings of anger and disrespect over the fact that after years of voluntary service to create the level of experience its student-athletes currently enjoy, as well as bringing its level of technical expertise to the table, that they could suddenly lose their collective voice pending a vote of B.C.’s school principals.
NO SHORTAGE OF PASSION
The paradox was immediately apparent.
This past Saturday, as the B.C. High Schools Boys Basketball Association prepared to hold its Annual General Meeting at the Langley Events Centre, it seemed the game couldn’t have been smiling any bigger than it was.
Its 75th anniversary was being celebrated with gusto, with all four of its tiers were holding back-to-back-to-back-to-back championship games in the expansive arena court, including the 5,000 or so who would be in attendance for the evening’s showcase Quad-A finale between Burnaby South and Kelowna.
Yet just below the surface, the pronounced whispers of change were loud enough to be heard above the din.
B.C. School Sports executive director Jordan Abney spoke as part of the AGM’s agenda, advising the membership on hand of BCSS’s new proposal for a sports-wide change in governance and of the fact that it would be voted upon at his association’s April 19th AGM.
Given a lifetime’s body of work from the BCHSBBA, and the ways in which it has made its provincial championship tournament perhaps the most celebrated and tradition-laden event of its kind in Canada, the news that its collective voice and influence could so suddenly be silenced by a pending vote left them stunned.
“The way this organization structure has been set out, the people that are running it are multi-sport people and basically, the people who have the most experience on the sports commissions, they won’t have any input,” said B.C. High School Boys Basketball Association president Ken Dockendorf, the Maple Ridge senior boys coach who has coached for parts of the past six decades. “So the groundwork is laid for them to change it in any way they want. They said they would consult, but technically, we would be completely out of the picture, as would all other sports commissions.”
It’s that feeling of building something, only to have it taken from you which raised the ire of those in the B.C. high school basketball community last Saturday as they attended meetings and coached games on the final day of the 2019-20 season.
“I think the control of this event, the B.C. high school boys basketball championships, should be centred with the people that are really passionate about the sport and growing the sport, and really want to see it do well,” said longtime coach Bob Corbett, in Langley last week as part of the coaching staff of the Vernon Panthers.
“And those are the coaches and the members of our commission, the people who stayed involved over time and history,” continued Corbett. “If we pass over the direct control of that in any way which takes away the ability to instil the passion and develop the experience for the kids out of it, then we are harming our own product and this wonderful event.”
PROPOSING A NEW MODEL
B.C. School Sports decision to move forward on its proposal to change the governance of high school sports in this province is multi-pronged, yet at its forefront is a singular goal.
“I think it’s trying to create the most sustainable athletic governing body for the future of high school sports,” says Taylor Clift, the athletic director at Surrey’s Earl Marriott Secondary and a proponent of the new proposal.
“We’re going to have more educators and administrators involved, and we are going to have a little more focus on it being high school sports as opposed to community sports,” add Clift. “In discussing all of this with my colleagues in Alberta, they just don’t have these issues because their model is exclusively educators and administrators.”
Ask Jordan Abney about his vision for the future, and he points out that the proposal, from BCSS’s perspective, is designed in part to bring high school sports in B.C. more organizationally in line with the rest of the continent, to allow it to more effectively streamline its operation by maximizing its ability to procure funding for all of its member sports, and to recalibrate high school sports back onto what it feels is its intended path in this province.
“We’re the only school sports governing body in North America that has these autonomous, independent-making sports-specific bodies, and so really that is quite rare and that leads to some operational and some legal challenges,” says Abney.
“What we’re trying to do is align ourselves in our decision-making so that it’s done in a much more consistent fashion, and that decision making is maintained within the education world,” he added. “With more and more of our coaches now coming from outside of the education sector, we’ve seen that trend lead to some discussions and some potential things happening that perhaps are a little but further outside the scope of education and education-centred athletics.”
In particular, Abney says it’s not the specific mandate of BCSS to develop high school student-athletes to become post-secondary athletes and beyond.
“We are happy to see athletes move on to play collegiately, nationally or internationally in whatever their sport is and I think it’s fantastic,” he begins, “but that is not why we exist. We don’t exist to create or develop those athletes, that is not the point of school sport. It’s a wonderful byproduct of what they do and a wonderful testament to the coaches that we have in the system, but we don’t make decisions on what’s going to help develop athletes best.
“We believe strongly that school sport is an educational tool that greatly enhances the development of young people and we want participation to be as broad as it can while still making school sports meaningful and still protecting some of the things around eligibility… it’s not intramurals, it’s not everyone come and play, certainly it has an aspect of competitiveness to it, but it is all done under the umbrella of it as an educational experience and part of the education system.”
All of that is an ambitious agenda, and one which some feel is unrealistic given the shortage of coaches, and the increased responsibilities being heaped upon the likes of athletic directors, and administrators like principals and vice-principals.
In fact, a definitive theme from many opposed to the new proposal is that it not only relies heavily on administrative help which, given the current state of the world, might be asking too much, but it also threatens to alienate the mass of unpaid people who have somehow made this eco-system work.
“B.C. School Sports survives off the volunteer labour of over 7,000 coaches who are represented only through their athletic directors and sports commissions,” says Walter van Halst, a teacher at Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary, a former longtime rugby coach, and the commissioner of the B.C. Secondary Schools Rugby Union. “I think Jordan is an honourable guy, but if we take that away, the people who are giving their time will be without a voice.
“People are volunteering out of the goodness of their hearts. They just want to see kids stay in school. There is no financial reward, such as moving into administration based on coaching hours.”
Dockendorf adds that the potential brain drain which could occur if sports commissions are abolished is nothing to take lightly, especially as it pertains to the bent he feels B.C. School Sports will bring as it constitutes, say, a new committee to oversee B.C. high school boys basketball.
“They have a different focus,” said Dockendorf, himself a former longtime teacher. “First and foremost, academics. And that’s is fine. It’s great. It’s not that they aren’t good people. They are. But they are not experienced in this (basketball) area. It’s like getting a French teacher and all of a sudden you’re going to teach Math 12.”
THE DOLLARS AND THE SENSE
B.C. School Sports is hopeful that if its new proposal is passed in April, that it will be able to not only apply for maximum funding from the provincial government, but that it might also be able to bring in key corporate sponsorship for all of its sports and their championships.
Although BCSS is the only school sports governing body in Canada that is not core funded by its provincial government, Abney is thankful that the association has been annually able to apply for and receive gaming funds through B.C.’s Ministry of Finance.
Last season, that funding was for $200,000, of which he says fully three-quarters to 80 per cent was funnelled back to its member sports.
“We fund the commissions, despite not having any say or profile at the events. We provide them the insurance, the banners, as well as some cash to operate the commission and the championships,” says Abney, who added that approximately $9-10,000 was channeled to boys basketball.
Abney adds, however, that the fact that the various sports commissions all have their own coffers, has made it tough to meet the provincial governments guidelines for the maximum $250,000 in funding.
“We have access to gaming funds but what we’re trying to do is to create a little bit more alignment so we could go back and get more,” says Abney. “But there were some challenges with our eligibility around delivering events.
“Not to get too far into the weeds,” he continued, “but some of the gaming guidelines require the funded organization to actually deliver the events, so by us sort of granting this third-party money to deliver the event, none of the expenses and profits from the event would show up on our auditor’s statements. So they want the funded organization delivering the event so that they can say ‘OK, these are public dollars, how are they being expensed?’ And right now it’s difficult for us to display. So, by having the championships under B.C. School Sports, all the operations can be displayed there and it meets that gaming-funding guideline.”
FOOTBALL AND ITS FUTURE AS A HIGH SCHOOL SPORT
As established as basketball is in terms of history, tradition and visibility in B.C. high school sports, so too is football.
The B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association has also been setting a leading edge in finding a dynamic title sponsor in Subway for its annual championship showcase at B.C. Place Stadium.
The BCSSFA has also, in past years, had its title game carried live on television by Sportsnet Pacific, and it has been pro-active in promoting safety throughout its sport at the high school level.
The news that the BCSSFA would cease to exist if B.C. School Sports’ new proposal was passed, was met with grave concern by the association.
“Our commission is very, very concerned that this is going to lessen the experience of our student-athletes from the championship game at B.C. Place, to all of the extras that come with Subway Bowl, to the provincial awards banquet, to the scholarships we provide kids,” began Farhan Lalji, the head coach at New Westminster Secondary who is also a past president of the BCSSFA, and the person responsible for bringing Subway aboard as the sport’s key sponsor.
“There are so many things that would go by the wayside and it’s disappointing to us because we have worked so hard to build what we have,” said Lalji. “It wasn’t given to us. We have a lot of things working against football in the public sphere, so we’ve had to work really hard as a commission to grow and nurture the sport and the athletes playing it, so this is very contradictory to all of that.”
Lalji continued that, because of the dynamics of football, it simply doesn’t fall into the same hole as virtually every other sport.
“You will have people who don’t have the expertise in our sport willing to create a cookie-cutter approach to a sport that has a lot more complicated factors,” he said.
“It requires a lot more building. You can take another sport and there isn’t as much required to get those sports on the fields, but with football there is a safety element to what we do, and there is a technical element to what we do. You really need to make sure that the people who are running your sport have a grasp of what is required. And I don’t see a scenario where this board they are attempting to put together will have any sense of what is required, and there is a sense that they will come back to us and say ‘Help us, on our terms, run the sport.’ And that is just not reasonable.”
Abney said the BCSSFA’s concerns about the potential of BCSS appointing a group which would address the technical and safety aspects of of the sport was understandable.
“It’s a fair comment and not something that we aren’t naive to, but as same time, you could say the same thing for rugby and wrestling,” said Abney. “There’s other sports that are contact or higher-risk sports, and the safety of our student-athletes is always the priority. So it’s not that we won’t seek out feedback and expertise from those that have it. To be fair, that commission has done a really good job on safety.”
TWO SIDES TO EVERY SITUATION
Regardless of how the vote turns out in April, the reaction to it from both sides has once again revealed the passion which endures to protect B.C. high school sports and keep it thriving amidst changing times.
Said Abney when asked what kind of reaction he got last Saturday speaking at the boys basketball AGM:
“We fully recognize that our coaches and our system has been built on a very sport-specific sort of… I’ll say a narrow kind of a focus on one sport. So to ask people to change that, especially coaches specifically, that are very focussed on one sport, that is a tough thing for people to think about.
“Everybody was courteous, everybody was respectful,” he continued. “There were some tough questions. There were some people who were not thrilled about the proposal and we fully expected that, especially from those in coaching roles.
“The feedback that we have been getting from athletic directors and administrators who tend to have a broader perspective has been probably the opposite of what you’ve heard in this building throughout the weekend. So it kind of depends on the perspective of the person. But it’s being done with people all with the best of intentions for school sports.”
Of that latter sentiment, both sides can agree.
And in lieu of the pending vote, it’s great that in our high school community, there can be differing opinions from people who ultimately all want the same thing.
“I think Jordan is an honourable and progressive guy,” says van Halst who referenced the manner in which Abney introduced the re-alignment of new zones this season. “Although many opposed it, no one can say they weren’t consulted and implementation took a full year. You knew it was coming and you had time to adjust.
“But this reminds me of Brian Mulroney trying to update the constitution with the Meech Lake accord (in 1987) and it all blew up. In this case, within a span of six weeks, we’re voting for the most radical change in terms of our history. The best thing for everyone would be to start this process over and arrive at a new governance system that everyone can support.”
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