I’ve only been following university football for just over 11 years – a period that just happens to coincide with my relationship with Cathy, one of the most devoted Acadia Axemen fans I’ve ever known.
Even with that little exposure to the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) gridiron, I thought I was getting a handle on the ins and outs of intervarsity sport. And then came the bizarre series of events leading to the cancellation and rescheduling of last week’s championship game at Acadia’s Raymond Field.
To recap: The St. Mary’s Huskies were supposed to travel to Wolfville Saturday afternoon for a Loney Bowl matchup against the Axemen. However, in the wake of an ongoing investigation by the national governing body U SPORTS into SMU’s alleged use of an ineligible player, the AUS decided late last week to scrap the Loney Bowl game, crown the Axemen as this year’s AUS champions, and have Acadia designated the host of the U SPORTS Uteck Bowl this coming Saturday.
According to U SPORTS policy, no participating team can have a player on its roster that was signed to a Canadian Football League (CFL) squad in any capacity within the previous 12 months. Multiple media sources have confirmed that the Huskies drew fire for playing wide receiver Archelaus Jack, who was on the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ practice roster as of October 11, 2016 but played in every single SMU game this season, including five that took place before the one-year deadline expired.
Further adding fuel to the fire: In the AUS semi-final game between SMU and StFX on November 4, which took place less than 24 hours after the news broke that U SPORTS had launched a full investigation into the ineligible-player allegations, Huskies coach James Colzie III put Jack out on the field again in Halifax.
The Huskies overcame a 12-9 halftime deficit and won a 16-15 squeaker to advance to the Loney Bowl. However, the X-Men kept practicing last week at Oland Stadium, hoping that the league might strip SMU of its berth in the AUS title game and give StFX a chance to knock off Acadia.
No such luck, as AUS executive director Phil Currie announced last Thursday that a complete Loney Bowl cancellation was “the only thing we could do to ensure that we have backed up our integrity and policies and our values.”
In response, St. Mary’s launched a court challenge to the AUS decision on Friday afternoon. Nearly two days later, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Deborah Smith declared that the championship game would indeed go ahead this week, with St. Mary’s and Acadia as the participating teams. All sides in the dispute agreed during Saturday’s court proceedings that if such a game were to be held, it would take place on Tuesday, November 14 – a grand total of four days before this weekend’s Uteck Bowl.
The situation has evolved into an unqualified disaster for the league and its member universities, in a year that was supposed to mark a significant step forward with the AUS football conference’s growth into a competitive five-team league.
Instead, the AUS and particularly SMU find themselves in a public relations nightmare, further compounded by the Huskies’ insistence that the player at the centre of this brouhaha is indeed eligible for any further post-season participation.
In the end, the rescheduled Loney Bowl will result in a winner, but it still feels like the three AUS clubs affected by this debacle all wind up as losers, as well.
For starters, Acadia – which hadn’t played since closing its regular season with a win over SMU on October 21 – is now forced to endure a rushed post-season schedule that could put them at a distinct disadvantage against their potential Upper Canadian opponents, who claimed their own conference title this past Saturday.
StFX, meanwhile, not only endures the sting of losing a close semi-final game to a team with an ineligible player, but isn’t given the chance to prove that they deserve the right to fight for the league title that was theirs for the past two seasons.
SMU winds up being the villain of this sordid tale, after repeatedly and flagrantly challenging the U SPORTS rule book – most recently in a court challenge that comes off as being the legal equivalent of a hissy-fit – and tarnishing a season that began with six straight Huskies wins and appeared to be restoring the lustre of a Nova Scotia sports legacy that had fallen on hard times over the past decade.
I may be a latecomer to AUS fandom, but I can’t possibly be the only one who thinks the league – and Nova Scotia’s legal system – fumbled the ball in the end zone.