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A Time to Rebuild

A former Varsity Blues football player makes the case for U of T athletics

When Cecil Rhodes established his famous scholarships more than 100 years ago, he directed that his scholars be chosen for their academic ability, sporting activity, personal rectitude, strength and compassion, and sense of the public good.

As an alumni member of the University of Toronto’s Governing Council for the past three years, I have participated in a healthy and evolving debate about the university’s mission. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that world-class research by faculty members is the university’s core mission. (They would allow that undergraduate teaching is also of some importance.) According to this school of thought, “extracurricular” experiences fall outside of this mission and therefore shouldn’t compete for the university’s scarce financial resources. They contend that the vast range of student activities – dramatic societies, literary and debating clubs, newspapers and sporting activities – ought to be funded entirely by special ancillary levies on the students themselves.

Then there are those – and I include myself – who believe that the university’s core mission does include athletics, at both the intercolle-giate and intramural levels. Cecil Rhodes had it right, more than a century ago, when he recognized the importance of “sporting activities” in an academic environment. When I reflect on my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto in the 1950s, I am convinced that what I learned on the football field and on the track made me a better student – and vice versa. I applied the same mental rigour, discipline and concentration to both athletics and academics. It mattered little that one played out on the track and football field and the other in lecture halls and seminar rooms.

In training to excel in football, my teammates and I compared instructional books, tested complex biometrics, interviewed top athletes, sought mentors and analyzed game films – all with the goal of enhancing our individual performance and contribution to the team. Our coaches were among our best teachers at the university. As with our classroom professors, they encouraged us to question their theories, strategies and methods. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that 20 per cent of the university’s 830 intercollegiate athletes are also first-class scholars.

Football, like other team sports, is played under intense mental and physical pressure. Each team member has an important task to accomplish; each must succeed for the team to succeed. As a running back, my responsibility was to exploit the openings my teammates gave me and drive to the goal line and score. Reflecting on my career in sports, business, academe and government, I realize that one often tends to achieve much more when working with people who have experienced playing on a team.

I was reminded of the importance of teamwork at the official opening of the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research last November. U of T President David Naylor spoke about how the new centre would draw together outstanding scientists from biomedicine, pharmacy, chemistry, computer science and tissue engineering. He predicted that this all-star team of accomplished individuals from diverse academic backgrounds would lead the way in biomolecular innovation in Canada and the world.

Dr. Naylor’s remarks made me think of the champion Varsity Blues football team of 1958, made up of students from medicine, engineering, law, education, and arts and science. It was also a winning “cross-disciplinary team,” though its innovations occurred on the playing field rather than in the lab. That squad won every game, scoring an average of 40 points in each, and is considered one of the strongest football teams in U of T’s history.

Student athletics are not an “extra.” They offer an excellent learning experience and provide an education in the deepest and most creative sense of the word. Facilities such as the Donnelly Centre and top-notch athletic programs are two sides of the same coin. Both are vital if the University of Toronto is to become a place where “athletic intelligence” and “academic intelligence” truly support and reinforce each other.

Tim Reid (BA 1959 Trinity) is the former president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. A Rhodes Scholar, he played with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 1962 Grey Cup (the “Fog Bowl”) and was inducted into the U of T Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. This text is adapted from a speech he gave to Trinity College alumni.

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  1. One Response to “ A Time to Rebuild ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was not a Varsity athlete during my time at U of T, but took pride in the team’s successes. The current football program is abysmal. Those who justify its poor performance by saying that athletics fall outside of the university’s core mission miss an important point. Athletes who wear the U of T jersey represent the university to future students, future staff, future faculty and financial supporters. If the football team of a large school with many students to draw from can’t win a game, what does that say about the university? My advice to the administration: take athletics seriously!

    Brian Johnston
    BCom 1981 Victoria