Welcome to “Cloverdale In Conversation,” a regular feature with a notable newsmaker.
This month, Farhan Lalji, TSN’s West Coast Reporter, is our guest. Lalji has coached high school football in B.C. for more than 30 years. He is past-president of the British Columbia Secondary School Football Association (BCSSFA) and is still a member of the board. Lalji was named the 2012 Citizen of the Year in New Westminster and was the 2004 and 2012 runner-up for NFL Canada National Coach of the Year.
Lalji chatted with the Cloverdale Reporter about the new B.C. high school sports governance proposal—possibly the biggest change to high school sports in B.C. in more than 50 years. The new proposal, by B.C. School Sports (BCSS), aims to wrestle away the decision-making power of the commissions—the volunteer-run bodies that manage high school sports in B.C.—and hand it to a new legislative assembly. (The BCSSFA is the commission that runs high school football.)
Lalji shares his thoughts on the proposal including his concerns about how it could negatively impact student athletes on different fronts, the disregard the new proposal shows toward community coaches, and his hope going forward if the new proposal is passed at the schools sports AGM May 1.
In the proposal, BCSS seeks to create a new legislative assembly that would replace the commissions with a ruling body of 55 appointees. Three reps from each of the province’s nine school sport zones would make up the first 27 members (one has to be a school administrator—principal or vice principal—and one has to be a female). Nine members of the BCSS board, committee chairs from 10 subcommittees, and nine appointees from “partner organizations” would make up the final block of 28 appointees. Partner organizations would be groups such as the BCTF, the high school superintendents union, and others. Each partner organization would appoint their own person to the legislative assembly.
Below that would sit 20 Sport Advisory Committees, or SACs—in essence powerless replacements of the commissions. Each SAC would be made up of 10 people: a chair plus one rep from each of the province’s nine sport zones. This would add up to another 200 people layered underneath the top tier. Except the SACs would have no decision-making power.
Malin Jordan: What are your initial thoughts on the new governance proposal?
Farhan Lalji: I have concerns about it’s effect, not just for football, but for higher level sport. When you look at the philosophical model, they are not really trying to promote any level of excellence.
I think they believe that everything needs to be recreational and participatory. And while that’s great, I do think you’ve got some kids that are trying to set a lot of goals within their given sport and I don’t think that they’re going to be put in the position to necessarily succeed.
I also think it could push a lot of people into the club sport system. You going to inherently put people in a position where they’re going to have to take on costs. So, that concerns me.
As a person who spent a lot of time building football, I look at football and boys and girls basketball as kind of the three signature high school sports in this province. And when you look at what we do in terms of our championships, it’s a pretty high-end product and I certainly worry that the quality will be diminished.
I think that they want everything to be equal across the board and I don’t think that’s realistic. We spent a lot of time building our sport to where we’re at, acquiring sponsorships, and providing additional value, and improving the experience for our kids. And when I look at how this is going to be set up, it’s a “water everything down and make everything the same” concept.
From a football standpoint, we are such a unique sport, and we’ve got a lot of different elements to what the sport entails—like when you look at our safety committee and some of the things that we’re doing on the concussion side—I think that our board of directors, with people that are directly involved in football and understand the game the way we do, and the other stakeholders around the country, I just can’t imagine that a bunch of administrators are going to be able to understand the sport and give it what it requires on the same level we can.
They want to bring in these sport advisory committees. With those, I worry that we’re not going to have the impact to do right by the sport. I think there’s a desire to control funds, and we have some, which we’ve raised. Who knows, are we going to be able to play four rounds of championships at BC Place ever again? Are we going to be able to run provincial all-star games again?
There’s a lot of things we do for our players and coaches, like safety clinics and coaching development, and I wonder, are we going to be able to continue to do those things?
MJ: You mentioned the sport advisory committees, the so-called SACs. It seems to me from reading the proposal, they’ll just replace the commissions, but they won’t have any power. What is your take on the SACs.
FL: That’s the concern. I’ve served on the [BCSSFA] board since 1996—and I’m not speaking to you as a board member, for the record. I certainly know the amount of time that’s been put in by a lot of people who have an intrinsic understanding of the sport. Why would we do it if we don’t have the ability to make decisions? We are the most qualified people to make those decisions. What are you going to ask us to do and why would we do it if we don’t have the power to make decisions?
I understand that School Sports has concerns about how certain commissions operate. Whereas when we operate, when we make our decisions around eligibility and championships and tiering and all these things, we go straight to what BC School Sports requires. We really do respect School Sports as a body and want to make sure we are behaving in accordance with what they want to see.
And I know everybody doesn’t do that, so they’re trying to streamline things, but it just feels like we’re going to be made to pay a price because others aren’t operating the way they should be, in terms of governance.
|Farhan Lalji chats with former B.C. Lion Doug Flutie. (Image via farhanlalji.com)
MJ: Do the student athletes benefit in football under the current governance model?
FL: I think our kids get a magnificent experience from start to finish. We don’t run our sport through zones because we’ve got somewhere in the neighbourhood of 55 schools that play football. So, we run as a provincial entity. The way this is getting set up, it doesn’t fit the way our sport runs.
MJ: Yeah, it’s a bit of a head scratcher for football. I’m just thinking about the zones. You’d have someone from Cranbrook, let’s say, or another town in the East Kootenay, on the football sport advisory committee—this may or may not be one of the three legislative assembly zone reps from the area; the governance doc is not clear on that, or I, at least, couldn’t figure that out: can a person be a zone rep and be on a SAC? I don’t know—but there are no schools in the East Kootenay that play football as a high school sport.
FL: Correct. I don’t understand how someone who is not involved in the sport can make decisions in the best interests of the kids and in the best interest of football.
MJ: What about the rule that no community coaches can be on the SACs or committees, that only current teachers/admins can participate?
FL: Listening to people talk about volunteer coaches and (how they’ve) tried to diminish the role of community coaches, and how they want to bring it back into education—truthfully, I find that offensive.
I’ve committed so much to the academic interests of the players that I coach—spending time with teachers, spending time with counsellors, and making sure that kids are held accountable academically, and that the true version of student athlete is accomplished.
I’m not suggesting everyone does that, but every teacher isn’t doing that either. I know teachers first hand, when they’re coaching, the rest of it isn’t relevant to them. I don’t think (community coaches) are doing wrong by the kids because we’re not teachers. I view myself as an educator, even though I’m not a teacher. We understand the sport, we’ve got passion for the sport, we’re committed to the sport, and we’re committed to the kids.
MJ: One thing that seems to be missing in the governance proposal is the kids. What does this mean for them? How is this going to improve sports for student athletes?
FL: Like I said for those three sports, it’s not. It’s just flat-out not. Might it for ultimate? Might it for field hockey? I don’t know. I can’t speak to their structures. But for the three signature sports, I don’t know how it makes us better.
The services we provide to student athletes and coaches is really high end. When we lose control of the funds that we need to make those things happen, I worry about whether or not they’re going to be able to continue.
MJ: Anything you’d like to add?
FL: When I look at the way things operate in the U.S.—and all those people are getting paid fully, including the administrators—I just think the dynamic of what we do here is so different.
MJ: Is this governance proposal based on a U.S. model?
FL: I think they try to use some of what happens in the States. Like, if you go down to the WIAA, the WIAA is in full control, but their version of sport advisory committees have a significant amount of input and the people in control have knowledge of what they’re dealing with. And they’re trying to grow revenue. But, at the end of the day, the people making the decisions truly understand the sport. I know a lot of the people involved in Washington and the people making those decisions understand football. Same with basketball.
All their state championships are done at such a high level. They’re geared toward excellence. Whereas ours aren’t going to be. When you listen to the people in charge talk, they don’t want to prioritize excellence. When that happens you run the risk of forcing people into the club system and creating so much cost.
MJ: Soccer is already basically in the club system. But what about basketball?
FL: Basketball is close. I worry about basketball. The club system is nipping at their heels. They’re trying so hard to keep the sport in the schools because the student athlete experience matters. You look at the provincial basketball championships. There’s nothing the club sport system could do to replicate that. If you had a club sport championship—even if the players were better because they were being coached at a high level by paid coaches—do you think anyone would come watch that?
They’ll never come watch because it’s the school community that drives that experience. The average kid will wind up losing out if the sport gets taken from the school system. That’s the same for football. There are kids that only play because it’s a school sport.
I think it hurts athletes at both ends of the spectrum—the athlete that is in it just to be in a school sport and the athlete that wants to pursue excellence. I think both will lose out.
MJ: Any final thoughts?
FL: I just hope, if this model passes, they truly empower the sport advisory committees.