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SFU names special adviser as it looks for feedback on its cancelled football team

Bob Copeland will provide assessment regarding viability of resuming SFU football in 2024 or later
Simon Fraser University football team players hold a banner after attending a hearing at B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, on Monday, May 1, 2023. Simon Fraser University says it has appointed a special adviser to help determine the future of its cancelled football program.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Bob Copeland, who was the University of Waterloo’s athletics director during one of the most turbulent times in the school’s history, will help determine the future of Simon Fraser University’s embattled football program.

On Thursday, SFU announced the appointment of Copeland, the senior vice-president of McLaren Global Sports Solutions, as special adviser to review the program. The school ceased football operations on April 4.

“I felt it was really important to find someone who’d want to be independent, who understood football, who understood university varsity athletics,” SFU president Joy Johnson said in a telephone interview. “I am just totally blown away by the fit.

“He and the firm he works with have just done incredible work. We are so lucky he’s available. We definitely feel he’s the right person for this … we’re excited about moving forward.”

Johnson said Copeland and McLaren CEO Richard McLaren will be on campus next week to convene preliminary meetings. The school said in a statement a final report will be shared in September.

Copeland will provide an assessment regarding the viability of resuming SFU football in 2024 or later. There will also be an evaluation of support for exhibition games in 2023 “as a means of transitioning to a potential new operating model and league in 2024.”

Copeland was Waterloo’s athletic director in 2010 when the university suspended its football program for a year after nine players tested positive for steroids. It was Canadian university sports’ biggest doping scandal.

But Copeland was lauded for his handling of the situation. He received Taylor’s Award by the Taylor Hooton Foundation for his work with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport in ordering a test of the football team after a player was arrested and in possession of steroids.

Taylor’s Award is presented to an individual who has made an impact in educating and protecting youth from anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. It’s named after Taylor Hooton, a 17-year old Texas high-school baseball player whose suicide in 2003 was linked to anabolic steroid use.

Johnson announced April 4 that Simon Fraser was discontinuing its football program, effective immediately. She added the decision wasn’t financially based, rather on the Texas-based Lone Star Conference’s announcement it would not renew its football affiliation with Simon Fraser past the 2023 campaign.

That prompted five SFU football players to file a lawsuit seeking an injunction in the Supreme Court of British Columbia to reverse the university’s decision. But on Thursday, Justice K. Michael Stephens dismissed the application.

“The court is cognizant of the plaintiffs’ understandable deep disappointment at SFU’s termination of the football program,” Justice Stephens wrote in his ruling. “This court does not trivialize the hardship they feel from the cancellation of the football program and associated cancellation of the upcoming football season.

“What is sought here by the plaintiffs is a mandatory injunction that would, in effect, order SFU to reinstate and run a currently cancelled varsity program. The plaintiffs have failed to satisfy the legal requirements … and they have not satisfied the court that a mandatory injunction is available at law, just, and appropriate in the circumstances.”

Johnson was pleased with the ruling for two reasons.

“I’m pleased he understood the position of the university,” she said. “But I’m also really pleased that he understood just how hard this has been on our student-athletes and I think that’s important.

“My heart has really gone out to our student-athletes. This has been very, very, tough and we knew that we needed to start to find a path forward.”

Johnson added she spoke with Mark Bailey, the president of the Simon Fraser University Football Alumni Society, on Wednesday night and the two sides are working together.

“After Dr. Johnson’s statement today, we are satisfied we can take the first steps toward a new working model for football at SFU,” Bailey said in a statement. “We believe we are on a constructive path to finding a conference to play in 2024 and beyond.”

There’s certainly a huge fence to mend as the school’s decision came under tremendous fire because the team had a place to play this season.

The abrupt cancellation of the program not only drew the ire of alumni across Canada but condemnation from CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay and Football Canada president Jim Mullin.

“I know people are passionate about football but I think the fact that it’s been nationwide has surprised me somewhat,” Johnson said. “And the depth of passion has been quite remarkable.”

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