Bisons players devastated in wake of front office fumble

Two weeks ago the Bisons football team was readying themselves for the playoffs after successfully turning around and salvaging what could have been a disaster of a season. It appears now that the Bisons never truly got out from under the shadow that marked the early part of this season.

On the afternoon of Nov. 3, Bison Sports announced that Canada West, in accordance with Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), had penalized the football team for use of an ineligible player, forcing the Bisons to forfeit three games, the equivalent of six points, which had been previously recorded as victories in the season. This meant that on the same day that the Nov. 4 edition of the Manitoban hit the stands with an article entitled “Playoff bound,” the Bisons were unceremoniously removed and erased from the 2009 playoffs.

The same type of punishment was doled out by the CIS earlier in the season for the SFU Clan, who were forced to forfeit two victories due to a player ineligibility issue. Ironically, the Bisons were actually one of the two teams that benefited from Simon Frasier’s forfeited games, having been awarded a win and an additional two points in late October from a team penalized for acting outside CIS rules and regulations. This time, though, it was the Bisons who found themselves giving up points to both the University of Alberta Golden Bears and the University of Regina Rams.

In a statement read by Bison Sports’ athletic director, Coleen Dufresne, the U of M publicly divulged the nature of the ineligibility infraction, accepted full blame for the event and apologized to the athletes negatively affected by the outcome.

The athlete in question, who the CIS deemed ineligible to play, was Bisons wide receiver Julian Hardy. According to Bison Sports, Hardy had tested positive for unregulated supplements in the fall of 2001 while playing for another university and was subsequently handed a four-year suspension from active play in the CIS. In 2007 Hardy enrolled at the University of Manitoba and later contacted Bison football head coach, Brian Dobie, looking for an opportunity to try out for the team. “Upon review of Julian’s academic and athletic history,” said Dufresne, “and seeing it was almost six years since the infraction, Julian was ruled as eligible to compete.”

What the Bison football program failed to understand, however, is that, in accordance with both CIS and Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) regulation, the four-year suspension leveled at Hardy signified years of eligibility rather than just time away from the CIS. Without much clarity, the suspension that was handed down to Hardy in 2001 was meant to effectively end his inter-university football career. Typical player eligibility lasts for a period of five years and, having spent the first year at the University of Ottawa, Hardy’s suspension was meant to wipe out all four years the athlete had left to play.

Bison Sports became aware of the issue in the final days of the season and, after internally confirming the facts, divulged all information to the CIS. “Self-disclosed” was a phrase used repeatedly at the press conference as both Dufresne and Coach Dobie urged the media to understand that this issue did not come about intentionally, nor was it the Bisons’ intention to ever act outside of league regulation. “The football program never knowingly played an ineligible player,” Dufresne read. “There was no attempt to cheat. Julian believed he was eligible, the university believed him to be eligible, and when it was discovered that he wasn’t, we took the necessary steps to rectify the situation.”

Regardless of intentions, Canada West ruled that due to playing an ineligible player, the Bisons would forfeit the three wins recorded with Julian in the lineup. It is an extremely difficult pill to swallow, but if there is any blame to be handed out, the U of M sports program insists it should be deflected away from the players. “Julian is blameless in this scenario,” insisted Bisons front office, “and he has already suffered more than he deserved.” Not only that, but all the Bisons players are now suffering much more than they could have ever deserved.

“Our fifth-year guys are really rocked by this,” said Dobie. “We earned the third playoff spot by winning this past weekend, and now to have that taken away by a mistake we unknowingly made and immediately acted upon and self-disclosed to everybody involved, it’s a tough one for our players.”

“I’ve said to some of our captains that they will hear every detail; it’s going to be a long meeting. [ . . . ] They deserve that. I also will make it very clear to our players that there are many people and parts of the system that are at fault but not the athlete.” In fact, it’s fair to say that the people and the parts of the system that are to blame may well be equally on the side of the CIS as much as they are on the side of Bison Sports.

In 2003 the CCES accepted the new World Anti-Doping Code — a code that ushered changes to many of the previously existing policies on player suspension. Prior to the new doping code, a first-year infraction, the same as Hardy’s, brought with it a penalty of a four-year suspension. Under the new regulation, however, the penalty for a first-year infraction was reduced to a two-year suspension. In 2004 a motion was passed by the CIS board of directors to accept applications from players currently serving a four-year suspension to have their term reduced to two years, as per the new CCES doping code. Unfortunately, the CIS never contacted the players serving four-year suspensions, and as a result very few athletes or staff were ever aware of this new policy. What makes this negligence to contact the athletes all the more egregious is the fact that in 2004, when the CIS passed the motion for suspension reductions, there were a total of four players serving such suspensions. It wouldn’t have been arduous; the CIS would have had to send letters to only four people.

Certainly, it is important for Bison Sports to come out and publicly admit fault for failing to properly assess the eligibility of a certain player, but in this instance it seems disingenuous for CIS not to admit any fault of their own. This may sound hyperbolic, but this is an organization that determines, to a large part, the trajectory of people’s lives. By not contacting Julian Hardy after the nullification of a suspension that was already sorely lacking in detail, the Canadian Interuniversity Sport system failed him and now he — and many other blameless individuals — are suffering great consequences.

“When we called him into Coleen’s office,” said Dobie, “he sat back [ . . . ] teared up and said, ‘I feel like I’m reliving this all over again.’ That’s not fair, that’s not right. He did nothing wrong, and the system let him down.”

In light of the circumstances, Bison Sports officially filed a compassionate appeal to CIS citing the new regulations for player suspension, the fact that CIS would have been oblivious to the matter if it had not been self-disclosed by the Bison front office and also that Julian Hardy would have lost all five years of his inter-university eligibility because no one at CIS nor Canada West made an effort to ensure players weren’t serving suspensions that were null and void.

“We are extremely disappointed,” said Dufresne, “in [CIS’s] decision to not support our compassionate appeal. We believe the decision taken by the eligibility committee is inconsistent with the CIS board of directors’ direction of 2004.” Of course, it should also be noted that none of the current CIS board of directors are left over from the board of 2004, so technically it’s not their fault for neglecting to contact the athletes immediately after their suspensions were made irrelevant.

But perhaps instead of finding all the sources for which we can lay blame, it may be better to think about those who, by no fault of their own, find themselves at the centre of this punitive mess.

“I’m going to be absolutely honest,” said Coach Dobie, “disappointment is absolutely there, so is sadness and so is anger. [The players] have the right to all of those emotions. How else should they feel?”

Not making the trip to the Canada West playoffs after earning the third spot in the conference is a pain that will certainly linger for many players but there are some that lost much more than that. Nathan Friesen, Wyatt Jacobi, Ryan Karhut, Will Sheils and Rory Anderson were all in their fifth year of inter-university eligibility this season and all played their last game as a Bison without even knowing it. That is a kind of pain these players won’t soon forget.