School or Club?

France:  The heart of Western Europe, the founder of Québec, and the current residence of Johnny Depp.  I am currently a guest in the wonderful country that brought us the croissants, the word aperitif, and Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt.  In a little Grenoble café (popularly named Café de France) I write you this compelling piece comparing the North American and European sport systems.  Yes, I plan to delve into their philosophies of sport development, the cultural divides that are apparent at international events, and the reason why Obama and François Hollande don’t get along.  All while enjoying a baguette, smoking a cigarette, and wearing a tight striped t-shirt.

Ok, enough with the French stereotypes.  I have come to quite enjoy French society (except maybe the time it takes to apply for anything, really) and definitely enjoy sitting in a bar that is older than Canada…

One aspect of French society that I have become quite aware of, however, is how different their sport development system is.  For one, it’s a lot more streamlined than our own.  For two, they have so many more fun and inclusive sports (handball, water polo, etc.).  [Did you know that there are 470,590 licensed handball players in France?]  For three, amateur sport matters.  Let that last statement sink in for a second.  They truly care about the development of amateur athletes, as sport plays an incredibly important role in their society; and not just as a means to gamble.

Let me tell you how it works:  no school sports.  At least not how we know it – their school sports are an extension of physed class – strictly intramural.  It is all about club sport here.  They don’t need to worry about getting your grade-11 homework done, getting to senior basketball practice, and then booking it across town to make it to your 2-hour club volleyball practice – North American excessiveness at it’s core.  All sports run through a club system where they can develop the athlete properly, keep a separate focus on school and sport, and provide them with a greater opportunity to turn pro one day.  So let’s say you’re apart of DDO Water Polo, or Winskill Dolphins Swim Club, or Blessed Sacrament Basketball; you don’t have to get drafted to a different league or move countries or sign with an agent (although eventually, yes); you just play your way up through the system.  You start at U12 (for instance) and play your way up all the way to U18; playing with the same kids, in the same system, against the same kids.  Then, once your brood makes it to adulthood (supposedly), you get to try out for the first team, which is pro.  Or semi-pro, or whatever, because this is your shot.  But the gist of it is that you’re still playing for the same club, and the first team coaches know who’s coming up, and they develop their squads based on that.  A little like Minor League baseball, but for amateur sports – a farm system.

Every great European (team) sportsmen that you can think of came up this way.  Tony Parker played for Centre Fédéral de Basket-Ball, and you probably haven’t heard of the rest, as they are famous in international volleyball, handball, ice hockey, and (insert any other sport) circles.  Well, all except those that got poached by NCAA schools…

The NCAA is a sideshow to the concept of amateur sport.  To be honest, I don’t even want to get into the plethora of arguments against the NCAA system (making millions off students, scholarships have nothing to do with scholarly pursuits, athletes are basically “owned” by the institutions until they get injured, etc.).  The truth of the matter is that the American system is flawed, and its not really its fault.  You see, professional sports became a multi-million dollar market overnight in the 1970s via television deals, million dollar contracts, and contract negotiations (FUN FACTS – Here are the first players to earn $1 Million in each of the major leagues:  NHL-Bobby Hull-1972; MLB-“Catfish” Hunter-1975; NBA-Moses Malone-1978; NFL-Lam Jones-1980).  Once non-athletes caught wind of this potential industry boom, the exploitation doors blew wide open.  Bookies, boosters, agents, and sponsors were fighting each other to get at the next Million Dollar Athlete.  In essence, the issue starts even before the NCAA, in the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union), which seems kinda like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?  Why do amateurs need a union?  Aren’t they doing it for the love of the game?  Suffice it to say, the issues in the American university sport system go beyond money, the corruption, and the going-to-bed-starving rules.  They lie in the system itself.

The AAU is the USA’s equivalent of club sports.  In Canada we have our PSO system.  As scattered and non-integrated as our system is, it works quite nicely.  You try out for your local/regional club team, you play in leagues or tournaments throughout the year, and you have a provincial championship to cap it off at the end.  Quite nicely is right!  However, we still have a university sports system that competes to recruit these same athletes, making it kind of European and kind of American.  The problem is the late competitiveness as opposed to early development – from the sport organizations perspective.  Or rather, our sport organizations are competing to sign us up when we’re at a competitive level instead of investing in our development at earlier ages.  Why doesn’t the University of Ottawa partner with Maverick Volleyball?

Europe has it right.  You sign up for your club sport, and stick with the program all the way through.  School is school, and sport is sport, there is no intermixing.  Eventually, if you stick with it and you’re talented enough, you sign with the Pro team at your club.  No need to base your university choice on athletics and close off potential future opportunities (I hate to be your Dad, but sports doesn’t always put food on the table).  In the European club system, you are at least making these decisions in more tempered, if not controlled, environment.  At the end of the day, Canada has a good system, but it shouldn’t come down to school AND club sport.  It should be school OR club.  Or better yet, only have one option.  I vote for the club option, but unfortunately we are getting a little too down the road – not quite NCAA distance, but on the highway to Gatorsville – to make any substantial changes… UNLESS, the CIS and Sport Canada make some major changes to integrate the system.  To be honest, (and I think I’ve said this before) the CIS has the potential leverage to be the single most influential sporting body in the entire Canadian amateur sport system, if only it could influence its own offices.  Wouldn’t a university/college feeder system through PSOs be more developmentally friendly?

I think yes, but what do I know in my French café.

O Canada.

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