OFSAA Eligibility Policy Discriminatory? Or Just a Poor Fit With Organization's Mandate

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Direct discrimination on well-known prohibited grounds is typically easily discerned. For example, it is well-known, if not always accepted, that girls may try out for boys' teams - whether or not there is a girls' team available to them.  Discrimination on other prohibited grounds has not been as well discussed or clarified, even though the same underlying principles apply. Sport organizations need to be broader  in their thinking around potential discrimination. This article thus applies to all sport organizations - not just those involved in school sports.

The Globe & Mail (April 18, 2011) reported the case of a high school student in Ottawa who was declared ineligible to compete in Ontario high school sports.  According to the Globe, Andrew Towle (pictured), a 19-year old  autistic student, started high school well behind his peers and, although it took him more time than his peers, he has succeeded academically and achieved honour roll status. It is this extra time that he needed that has wreaked havoc on his high school athletic endeavours.

The Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) governs school sport eligibility. In this case, there are two key eligibility requirements for participation in OFSSA governed school sport. One is that a student "has not yet reached his/her 19th birthday by January 1st prior to the start of the school year in which the competition is held". Andrew satisfies the age requirements. The problem is with the second requirement: OFSAA starts counting athletic eligibility once a student starts high school (that is, enters grade 9). A student has five years of eligibility from that date - period. Andrew has taken too long to complete his studies and now is precluded from participating in the school's athletic program.

It is usual for sport activities to involve some eligibility restrictions. By and large, these restrictions are reasonable and make sense. Weight categories ensure bigger and stronger athletes don't compete against smaller and less strong athletes. Age often correlates with size, at least at the younger age categories, and so most sports are organized around age categories. Many educational institutions limit the number of years of eligibility of student-athletes. They attach eligibility to years of play, not to years within the academic institution. The usual reason is to allow a turnover of athletes on teams, regardless of how long a student athlete remains at the institution. This is why, for example, universities and colleges have put this rule into place.

The problem with such a rigid approach  is that not all people fit into the normal categories of age, size, weight, strength and skill. Andrew spent his first year at Ottawa Technical Learning Centre taking non-credit courses so as to raise his basic scholastic skills to a grade 9 standard - the point where most students enter the high school system and their five years of  athletic eligibility starts. Andrew's eligibility started once he entered high school on this remedial basis. Although he  was not part of the athletic program during that time, his eligibility clock nonetheless began ticking.

One can certainly query whether the effect of the current eligibility policy is having a discriminatory effect in Andrew's situation. His disability is a prohibited ground of discrimination and indirectly, this disability has prevented him from being able to satisfy the eligibility criteria of OFSAA.

But there is another aspect worth mentioning. Policies, such as the eligibility policy of OFSSA, ought to show a 'good fit' with the underlying values and philosophy upon which the program is built. In other words, it should be congruent with the values and goals of the organization. The OFSAA website, for example,  refers to sharing a "philosophy of education through school sport". According to the Globe and Mail article, "The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among students has grown, and autistic athletes are finding a natural fit and a sense of normalcy in endurance sports". It is apparent that Andrew's participation in athletics has benefited him both academically and socially, and in this regard, it could be argued that the mandate and values of OFSAA would support his continued participation.

This story is a useful opportunity to return to some basic 'touchstones'. What is the purpose of a school sport program? Is it an extension of the academic program for those enrolled at the school? Clearly, it is not intended as the sole focus of a student's school experience. Nor should a student be attending school solely to participate in school sports in order to gain access to other sport opportunities (although this might well be among the outcomes of a successful high school athletic career). For most organizations like OFSAA, it is clear that sport participation is intended to contribute to, and enhance the educational experience.

Eligibility policies play an important role in defining and shaping a sport program. It is important that they do the job intended and don't have unfortunate 'unintended', potentially discriminatory, consequences for those for whom the programs are designed. In this case, OFSAA is standing firm by its 5-year eligibility rule, saying the rule is designed to ensure other student-athletes have an opportunity to participate.

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