The University of New Brunswick women’s varsity hockey team played its first game on October 13 against Mount Allison after being resurrected following a lengthy battle lasting a decade.
Following a neo-liberal capital-centric sports agenda, UNB downgraded its women’s varsity team to a sports club in March, 2008 citing funding issues. That decision cost the team most of its funding and its ability to play in the Atlantic University Sport conference or the Canadian Interuniversity Sports national championships.
It is unacceptable that this case took ten years to be resolved. It speaks volumes on how amateur sport is being blocked in Canada and the little-known battles being waged to defend participation in sport.
Faced with cutbacks in government funding for education, different universities in Canada and the United States have similarly cut back on both women’s sports – such as women’s hockey to field hockey – as well as sports deemed “fringe” or “minor”, that is, those that do not generate revenue, while prioritizing so-called “high profile” sports.
At UNB, along with women’s hockey, wrestling, cross country and men’s swimming were slashed from the school’s varsity program, changing the teams’ status to competitive clubs. As of fall 2008, the teams were no longer eligible to have a share of the university’s $1 million athletics budget. Students participating in the programs were not able to earn an athletic scholarship.
Money the “deciding factor”
The athletics budget increased funding for the surviving programs of soccer, basketball, volleyball, women’s swimming and men’s hockey. Spectator interest and money were the two main criteria, according to statements by university officials made at the time.
Sixty female and 62 male athletes were affected by the cuts, which changed the status of teams being cut to competitive clubs. They were left to fight amongst themselves for a portion of the universitys $10,000 budget for all sports clubs available through the recreation program.
However, former player Sylvia (Bryson) Dooley alleged the decision amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex. Ms Dooley played defence on the varsity team for four seasons.
“It was just an absolute sense of betrayal and very demeaning…”
“It was just an absolute sense of betrayal and very demeaning that everything you had done for the previous four years, trying to build something and trying to improve, just meant nothing,” she told CBC in 2014.
“Being deprived of opportunities for recruitment, opportunities for coaching, budgetary opportunities for out-of-conference exhibition play, and academic and athletic scholarships to attract new players.”
The move sparked protests on campus against a pattern of discrimination, including demonstrations and a petition.
Ms Dooley, then-head coach Don Davis and Janis Thompson, a volunteer with the program, all filed human rights complaints against the university, which fought them tooth and nail.
In 2011, the Human Rights Commission decided to forward the complaints to a board of inquiry. UNB filed an appeal to stop the inquiry.
Two years later, a Court of Queen’s Bench judge, Paulette Garnett, ruled on the appeal on April 29, 2013 in a 20-page decision, dismissing the application by UNB in the Bryson (Dooley) complaint, while quashing the complaints by the coach and volunteer. UNB argued that neither complainant were “aggrieved persons” under the act and the judge agreed.
The Human Rights Commission ordered a board of inquiry. The university failed to stop it in court and the board of inquiry took place in Fredericton in 2014.
In 2016, the province’s Labour and Employment Board agreed and ordered the school to reverse its decision.
Ms Dooley said Saturday’s home game in Fredericton against Mount Allison University would provide “a pretty significant sense of closure.”
The former UNB hockey player, now based in Ottawa, was in the stands when the Varsity Reds hit the ice for the first regular season game in a decade.
She says she met head coach Sarah Hilworth on Thursday and that the team appeared excited to start the season.
Mount Allison won a taut game 2-1 in double overtime.
In the United States
The case of the University of North Dakota illustrates the neo-liberal, anti-social trend in the United States.
On March 30, 2017 North Dakota cut women’s hockey, one of the top-tier Division I teams in the NCAA. There were reportedly no alternatives, such as club teams, offered, either.
The program produced 12 Olympians in only 15 years, including eight who played in the Sochi Games; the Fighting Hawks had come into the season ranked sixth in national polls.
Sports Illustrated reported that University president Mark Kennedy, faced with state budget cuts, pressured “the athletics department for greater funding for the four recent conference championship teams of volleyball, football and men’s and women’s basketball.” Other sports such as men’s golf were offered the opportunity to fundraise the difference but not men’s or women’s swimming and diving, or women’s hockey.
The cuts left just 35 women’s Division I hockey programs in the US.