Racial barriers in varsity sports

“The key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practising a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours,” Malcolm Gladwell once wrote. His words could be taken to apply to all the top athletes who hope to be successful at U of T. But athletes should be looking not only to attain the highest level of competition within their sport, but also to be inclusive of all people.

The Access, Retention, and Culture of Sport discussion panel at U of T was the first in a series of sports panels to be introduced throughout 2014 and 2015. The panels will examine the relationship between sports and postsecondary education, focusing on race, primarily on black and Aboriginal students.

Four major themes were explored in the first discussion: the process of recruitment of Aboriginal and black students, the value of these students, the communication of the realities lived by these students, and the retention of these students’ services.

Nathaniel Virgo, a student who experienced struggle growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, played soccer for eight years, basketball for three years, and even tried baseball, but as he says, “I hated the fact that I needed to run. I therefore committed myself to volleyball. Now, I’m in my third year on the Varsity Blues team.” Virgo faced multiple problems when trying to break in to playing volleyball at the varsity level.

    Having been brought up in a religious family, he often stood up to his parents by opting to play volleyball rather than attend mass. His determination led to his being spotted by U of T when he participated in a volleyball tournament held at the Scarborough campus. Luckily for Virgo, his parents understood the importance of the opportunity and encouraged their son to pursue his dream, which earned him a ticket to university.

Mike Auski, a former U of T Ojibwe student, could relate to Virgo’s situation. He got the chance to study at U of T by playing ice hockey. He has now successfully accomplished his goal of playing professional hockey in Estonia.

But their success stories are rare, and when they do happen they come with barriers not as common among their non-minority counterparts. In the opinion of Varsity Blues football coach Greg Gary, there are often only two options available for minority youths to escape impoverished and dangerous neighbourhoods: either commit a crime or be recognized as an outstanding athlete. However, finances are an immense barrier to young, sporty individuals from these neighbourhoods. Gary adds that “the talent pool [is] so small”.

Also discussed was the fact that black and Aboriginal female athletes have a much lower rate of success than their male counterparts, because their opportunities are even more limited. For instance, there are Inuit hockey tournaments for males that take place all over the nation, but not a single sport is organized in the same manner for female Inuit athletes.

To complicate matters, the recruiting of Aboriginal and black athletes by top universities like U of T isn’t always guaranteed. Their abilities on the court may not transfer well to the classroom, reducing opportunities for these students. On the other hand, many Aboriginal students drop out during their university careers and choose not to reveal that they are Aboriginal.

Whatever the reason, black and Aboriginal students tend to find getting into varsity sports more difficult than other student athletes. As an institution that boasts its rank among the most prestigious and culturally diverse in the world, U of T must work to reduce this type of discrimination. In the words of Nelson Mandela , “[Sport] speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”

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