A new rule introduced by the province’s high school sports umbrella group could jeopardize an Orleans high school’s ability to field teams.
The rule will prevent students enrolled in a sports study program from outside the school’s boundaries from playing on their school’s team in that sport. If the sports study student specializes in soccer, for example, he or she can’t play for the school soccer team.
The decision was made by the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations and will be phased in over four years starting next September. Current students will follow the rules in place when they started at the school in a grandfathering arrangement.
OVER 50% AFFECTED
More than half of Grade 9 students who will enroll in Louis Riel high school’s sport study program next year will be affected by the rule.
“When (parents) registered here, it’s because they want to give their children the best program available,” said Louis Riel principal Claude Pierre Louis.
OFSAA executive director Doug Gellatly said the rule was introduced to balance competition between schools with sports programs and regular schools.
“The regulation was adopted to address the distinct nature of sport schools and the competitive advantage that such schools have over other schools,” said Gellatly in an email.
Louis Riel, a small school with just under 500 students, fields competitive teams in the city’s high school sports league.
Because of the school’s relatively small student population, the Louis Riel teams should compete in A-level competitions, but regularly move up to the AA- or AAA-level divisions to play much larger schools, said the school’s athletic director Joé Fournier.
Pierre Louis said the school does that to avoid an “imbalance,” or mismatch that could see Louis Riel’s teams dominate schools with similar student populations.
There are four French public schools in Ottawa with specific focuses of study. While Gisele-Lalonde runs the international baccalaureate program for example, Louis Riel specializes in sport study.
The school board encourages students to choose the school that is the best fit for their interests, not specifically the closest school for them, said school board media spokesperson Marilyne Guèvremont.
“Because we only have four high schools, we don’t really have boundaries,” Guèvremont said.
She said the Ministry of Education encourages boards to develop specialties within schools – but this new rule doesn’t support what they have been encouraged to develop.
There are 195 students in the Grade 9 to 12 sport study program; 100 of them live out of boundary. The most represented sports are hockey, soccer, track and field and basketball.
If this year’s 22 sport study soccer students from outside the boundary were banned from competing in soccer – a reality the school could end up with in four years, after the rule is fully grandfathered in – fielding a competitive team would be nearly impossible.
But there are additional students who chose to attend Louis Riel from outside the boundary and compete on sports teams without being part of the sport study program.
They would have to identify their primary sport, even though not in sport study – and couldn’t play on the sanctioned sports teams.
“If out-of-boundary kids are not allowed to compete, the teams are in jeopardy,” Fournier said.
For example, last year there was no junior girls’ basketball or soccer teams because the school simply didn’t have the numbers.
If the players specializing in basketball or soccer are banned from playing those sports, the school may not be able to field a team.
Students in the sports study program have a modified day, which includes fitness or sport training, while completing all the required class hours. Teachers are also flexible with students who may need to catch up on missed classes for competitions or training sessions outside of school.
OFSAA is more important in certain sports. University recruiters for track and field athletes often use the provincial event as a chance to recruit, and look for results when comparing potential athletes head to head.
For other students, sports leagues an important part of being a teenager.
“To get to play with their friends; it’s part of the high school experience,” Fournier said. “They can’t treat them like they’re adults in professional leagues.”
At a parent meeting at the end of October, the school board’s lawyer recommended parents of Grade 7 and 8 students file complaints on behalf of their children with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, Guèvremont said.
“I just feel that it would be inequitable if they register and all of a sudden they’re ineligible,” said Pierre Louis.
He said there are parents planning to file complaints, and are looking to the school for guidance in how to proceed.
“I hope at the end it’ll be a favourable outcome and permit them to compete,” said Pierre Louis. “And other means will be taken by OFSAA to address the perceived imbalance between teams. We already addressed this issue by playing at a higher level.”
It’s not the first time that Louis Riel has looked to the legal system to appeal an OFSAA ruling. In 2011, their senior girls soccer team was granted permission to compete at the AAA OFSAA championship through a court ruling.
The team was disqualified after a paperwork error where the coach left one player’s name off the registered roster, and the team was ordered to forfeit games preventing them from competing. They went on to win the provincial title.
But there are schools without sport study programs winning provincial titles as well, often several in a row, Fournier said. Louis Riel isn’t the only school winning back-to-back titles.
“There have been dynasties in different sports before,” he said. “Dynasties come and go.” For example, Guido de Brès Christian High School in Hamilton, a private Christian school, won three back-to-back boys soccer titles in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Private schools would only have the boundaries enforced if they met the definition of a sport school. To be a sport school, they have to offer flexible or modified timetables or admit athletes due to athletics, and require them to take additional credits in heath and physical education.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about how the ruling will affect Louis Riel. Who is going to enforce the regulation and monitor what sport students study at Louis Riel? Will there be a process to switch sports?
And, for students competing at a high level in dual sports, how will the primary sport be determined?
Gellatly said Louis Riel would be required to submit each student’s sport of specialty to the national capital high school sports association to gain approval.
“Parents have a lot of questions; they want clarification,” Fournier said. “It’s not black and white. It’s a lot of grey.”