Pre-pandemic basketball at Algonquin College: Jody Gerus, avoids interception as she passes to a teammate in a game on Oct. 25, 2019. Photo credit: Dana Simpson

The Ontario government announced new COVID-19 restrictions on Jan. 2 including a ban on indoor sports until Jan. 27, with an exemption for “elite amateur” sports leagues.

Both the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association and Ontario University Athletics were excluded from the list of elite amateur leagues qualifying for the exemption of indoor sports.

Seven other amateur sporting leagues qualified for indoor play including the Canadian Hockey League, Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association, Provincial Women’s Hockey League, League 1 Ontario, Ontario Women’s Field Lacrosse U19 A League, Elite Baseball League of Ontario 18U Division, and the Ontario Junior A Lacrosse League.

Student athletes in the OCAA feel, despite their exclusion from being considered an elite amateur league, they are “elite.”

“In order to even be considered to play in the post-secondary level you need to be considered elite,” said Jade Lyons, a first-year student athlete on the Algonquin Wolves women’s basketball team, and former team member of the women’s basketball team for Carleton University.

“It’s strange how once we get to the respective leagues that we were so elite to get into, we are no longer considered elite,” said Lyons, a first-year student, pursuing a bachelor of early learning and community development.

“We train, focus, work, motivate and compete at the highest level possible for sports in post-secondary institutions,” said Lyons. “Being told we do not qualify under the title of an elite amateur athlete is something extremely disheartening and unfair to all student athletes.”

The list of leagues qualifying for the exemption is decided by the Ontario Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries.

“We want to make sure that all of our athletes, including those in university sports, can play when it is safe to do so,” said Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism, and Culture, in a statement. “We will continue to work with colleges and universities to determine how we can best support athletics at that level.”

The OCAA is in communication with the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, in efforts to get their athletes back to competitive play.

“The OCAA continues its efforts to be added to the province’s exception list for elite amateur sport leagues for the purpose of allowing our student athletes an opportunity to practice and train together in a safe environment in anticipation of a return to intercollegiate competition in the near future,” said Josh Bell-Webster, OCAA marketing and communications coordinator. The OCAA sports affected by the delay of the 2022 winter season include basketball, volleyball, badminton, curling and indoor soccer.

Student athletes in the OCAA and OUA have received support from the public to be considered an elite amateur league by the Ontario government.

A petition urging the Ontario government to identify OCAA and OUA athletes as elite has received over 7,500 signatures.

The OUA has also shown support to their athletes through the #OUAisELITE campaign on Twitter.

Not being able to play their respective sports has had an impact on student athletes both mentally and physically.

“All the stress of not knowing the future made things extremely difficult and really impacted many athletes’ mental health,” said Lyons.

Lyons says it has been over a month since the women’s basketball team at Algonquin College practised together.

Additionally, commercial recreation facilities and gyms in Ontario have been closed due to COVID-19 health and safety measures set by the provincial government.

“We couldn’t even train outside of school property unless we found or had equipment at home,” said Lyons.

The OCAA will give athletes a period of time for training before competitive play is resumed.

“A period of approximately seven days will be needed to give our student athletes proper training prior to commencing intercollegiate competition,” said Bell-Webster. “Optimistically, the OCAA is now looking at an early February start date.”