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Simon Fraser’s decision to nix football program has players, alumni searching for answers

Simon Fraser University Simon Fraser University - Getty Images

Simon Fraser University announced the end of its football program last week after 57 seasons as the Red Leafs' membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Lone Star Conference was not renewed, leaving players and alumni searching for answers.

April 4 was the beginning of the end of SFU’s football program as the university announced that they would be terminating the program due to their inability to find a conference to compete in.

“I am saddened to share that we are announcing the end of SFU's varsity football program," said SFU president Joy Johnson in a statement. "Simon Fraser University is incredibly proud of our long football history, student-athletes, coaches and alumni.”

"This is a difficult decision, and not one taken lightly. With the recent announcement that the team has not been invited to continue in the Lone Star Conference, we do not have a conference to play in beginning in 2024. The ongoing uncertainty creates an unacceptable experience for students. The university has carefully considered all available options and as a leadership team we concluded that football is no longer a feasible sport for SFU."

The announcement rocked Canada and left SFU players without a team, support, or answers to their questions. They took to Twitter to voice their displeasure, raise concerns, and share game tape as those with eligibility left hope to find a new home.

"(We) first heard about it on April 3 or April 4, one of those days," said Maliq Washington, a junior offensive lineman. "We gathered in a big meeting room and none of us expected the outcome would be the folding of the program. Administration tried to give us some explanation of why they were doing it, but it just didn't cut it...We just found out about it in the not best way."

"Kind of just shock and upset," Washington said on his initial feelings after being dealt the news. "(I) kind of just was at a loss for words. Right after they gave us the news just for an hour or two I was completely speechless."

A native of Lakewood, Wash., the news hit Washington hard, considering the choice he made earlier to uproot his life at home in the United States to attend Simon Fraser.

"Coming to this school, I made a choice. I made a decision to be here for the next four-to-five years. So with them making the decision they are willing to put into place, that just threw everything for a wild ride," Washington said.

"Now I'm having to decide whether I do I want to stay here and continue being with this great team and the great teammates I have. Or it puts me in a position where I may have to find a school back in the States or back home. So it's kind of just messy."

“I think the football community is doing exactly what they should do and continue to do,” said Abbotsford native Sam Davenport. “SFU football was an important part of the growing football community and still can be. Right now it’s hard to remain optimistic but I’m trying to trust the process."

"I think my plans are to see what our alumni do," the redshirt junior said on his next step. "You see the hashtag #SaveSFUFootball going around, our alumni will always have our best interest in mind. They will do everything they can to save our program but I know that if it comes to finding new homes for all of us, they will do everything they can to find us places to play."

Established in 1965, the Burnaby, B.C.-based university situated close to the Canadian-American boarder in the Pacific Northwest has long played by traditional American football rules – complete with four downs and the lack of a "waggle".

Formerly the "Clansmen" (1965-2020), the Red Leafs competed against American schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) from their inaugural season in '65 until 2001 and, since 1967, have faced their cross-province rival, the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, in the annual Shrum Bowl. There, the schools alternate venues and rules between the American and Canadian game.

Following the 2001 season, SFU’s football program, along with its other collegiate teams, headed back north, joining the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) and playing under Canadian rules for seven seasons (2002-09). The Red Leafs saw near immediate success on Canadian soil, capturing the Hardy Trophy as the winner of the Canada West Universities Athletic Association Football Conference in 2003.

Heading down south again in 2010, SFU joined the NCAA Division II's Great Northwest Atlantic Conference and played more than a decade in the GNAC (2010-21) before the conference dropped football entirely after the 2021 season.

In response, SFU and two other former GNAC members, Central Washington University and Western Oregon University, became football-only members of the Texas-based Lone Star Conference in 2022.

Under then-head coach Mike Rigell, the Red Leafs went 1-8 in their first season in the LSC, finishing in last place. Shortly after the conclusion of their 2022 season, the conference announced that they would be ending their affiliation with Simon Fraser and the storied program would need to find a new conference to compete in for the 2023 season.

Of the proud SFU alumni fighting for the program and the players is TSN's own Farhan Lalji, who was also blindsided by the news.

Lalji told that he, alongside the other passionate Simon Fraser Football Alumni Society members believe the decision to dissolve the football program was rooted in economics as the decision came two days after the start of the new fiscal year.

While currently out of a conference, Lalji adds that the alumni have been in contact with the NAIA in regards to discuss potential football-only membership for SFU and that door appears to be open. As for membership in Canada, a report published by John Hodge of 3DownNation indicates that SFU athletic director Theresa Hanson did not make a formal application to join USports due to it being an "incredibly complex" process. Although behind the scenes, both USports and Canada West officials have been very encouraging about the prospects of a football-only application, should SFU chose to submit one.

With much of the puzzle still to be put together, Lalji ensured that the alumni society are doing as much as possible to reinstate the program and keep Canadian football intertwined into the fabric of the country.

As of April 11, the alumni society filed an injunction against SFU to reinstate its football program, leaving the fate of the historic program to be decided in the walls of a courtroom in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday.