As St. Mary’s University battled a costly and public legal battle to play a football game in 2017, Halifax University hired a high-profile public relations firm for advice on how the institution could improve its public image.
A row over player eligibility began in courts in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and included a Memorial Day hearing over whether an Atlantic Championship game known as the Loney Bowl would go ahead, resulting in legal bills of nearly $500,000 for the university.
CBC News obtained documents in an access to information request that took nearly four years for the university to fully answer. The records reveal details of the frustration of officials and the university’s public relations approach, which has included closing gates at team training to prevent the media from speaking to players and coaches.
“We need to keep the gates closed,” the university’s vice president for external affairs, Margaret Murphy, wrote on November 13, 2017, by email to several school officials.
“I will attend to the media department. We will let the media get pictures of the team from a distance. I will remain the only one doing media interviews.
“The coaches and players need to focus on the match and we want to keep the comments on what we agreed on yesterday.”
CBC requested bills and records in 2018 relating to Archelaus Jack, who fit St. Mary’s Huskies in the 2017 season. His eligibility has been called into question due to his previous time as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders practice roster in 2016.
An eligibility issue prompted Atlantic University Sports (AUS) to cancel the Lonely Bowl game between Saint Mary’s and Acadia University just days before it was due. Saint Mary’s AUS took the AUS to court, and a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge later ruled that the match should continue. Played on November 14, 2017, the Husky lost 45-38 in overtime.
In 2018, the university initially provided CBC News with legal bills related to the case, but did not provide any of the other required records. The CBC appealed to the county information and privacy commissioner, and the university began releasing records last fall, of which there were about 1,000 pages, many of which have been redacted. Since then, officials have released more and more previously revised materials.
In an interview with CBC News, Murphy described the process of accessing information as a “learning experience.” The university had three different information officers working on the file, the last of whom was a university attorney.
Murphy said the attorney has a greater understanding of what must be provided by law. She expects this to result in the university issuing more documents on requests for access to information in the future.
When word first broke about the eligibility dispute on November 3, 2017, university officials and an outside attorney working on their behalf considered how to respond to a request for comment from a CTV reporter.
Officials agreed on a 30-word statement that said the university was serious about its response and there was no problem.
‘The less you talk, the better’
“The less the better,” McCains Cooper’s attorney, Robert Bellevue, who helped represent the university, noted in an email to several of its officials.
The documents show frustration within the Saint Mary’s community.
“I’m really tired of this,” Karen Oldfield, who at the time was chair of the university’s board of governors, wrote on November 13, 2017, via email to the school’s president and one of the lawyers working at the university. In my name or for me.
“I think we should go on the full offensive.”
In a report dated November 17, 2017, three days after the Loney Bowl, the National Public Relations recommended that Saint Mary halt media interviews about the case and provide email statements only.
National also suggested reconstructing the St. Mary’s Dossier by continuing President Robert Summerby-Murray’s “key facts” prior to the 2017 and 2018 holidays that included “more interaction with students and campus, celebratory moments, etc.”
“Consider a beautiful background, and create videos of him ‘in conversation’ with others. Use more energetic and stronger/proud language in social media posts to show leadership and influence.”
The report noted that Jack’s case “resulted in a narrative indicating that SMU did not act with integrity or in accordance with its core values, or the core values of Australia.”
St. Mary’s spent $2,067.75 on the report from the National.
The company also later assisted in reviewing media statements from Saint Mary’s.
The eligibility dispute centered on language involving how long former CFL players must wait before playing at the college level.
The 2017-18 rules state that former CFL players who were listed after August 15 of a given year had to wait a year before they could join a college team.
Saint Mary’s interpreted the one-year waiting time as one academic year, not a calendar year.
How did the legal battle begin?
The legal battle began in secret, but then took off into the open.
Saint Mary’s reached an agreement on October 27, 2017, with U Sports, the governing body for college sports in Canada, that there were no outstanding issues regarding the player’s eligibility.
According to court documents from Ontario, the agreement came after Saint Mary’s U Sports threatened court action. In exchange for the university not pursuing legal action, U Sports agreed not to investigate the eligibility issue, according to a written decision by Ontario Superior Court Judge Todd Archibald after Saint Mary’s referred U Sports to court to enforce the agreement.
Documents obtained by CBC show that even as the legal battle privately begins, U Sports told St. Mary’s on November 2, 2017, that no matter how Jack’s case is resolved, it will adjust its policies “to clearly and unambiguously reflect our national office position and membership, which is that student-athletes in these circumstances should not be eligible to compete in a U Sports competition until the 365-day period from the date of the CFL’s participation.” That’s what the guidelines say now.
The university feared “serious reputational damage”
Court filings by St. Mary’s show that the university was concerned about “serious reputational damage”. They have heard from alumni and administrative officials “express their grave concern about the impact of these events on fundraising, relationships with alumni, and student recruitment at the university in the future.”
The legal battle then moved to Nova Scotia after the athletic directors of four Atlantic University (AUS) athletic schools filed a complaint with the American University Judicial Committee on November 1, 2017, regarding Jack’s eligibility. The case became public within days.
Joe Taplin, who was the soccer team’s quarterback coach at the time, was unhappy about this.
“It hurts me at four other institutions [sic] Written on November 16, 2017, via email to multiple school officials.
St. Mary’s spent $475,973.49 on legal bills in Ontario and Nova Scotia on the case. For the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, the university received $36.25 million and $37.8 million, respectively, from the county, according to figures provided by St. Mary’s.
This prompted condemnation from Tim Houston in 2019, who was the leader of the official opposition in Nova Scotia at the time and is now prime minister.
“It is important for us to be a province that provides higher education to a number of students, but at the same time, the money that taxpayers invest is for the purpose of educating people,” he said at the time.
How much do other parties spend on legal fees
Other institutions have raised legal bills as part of court battles:
- Acadia University – $2,6254.48.
- Atlantic Sport University – $44,000.
- U Sports – More than $100,000, plus a ‘significant’ amount in unpaid legal services, said Graham Brown, president and CEO of U Sports.
On March 2, 2018, SMU President Summerby-Murray wrote in an email to Mike Mahon, President of the University of Lethbridge and Chairman of the Board of U Sports, that the university did not initiate litigation until after U Sports violated our mutual agreement” and “undermined a collective negotiated settlement.” .
“Having said that, I am committed to ensuring that Saint Mary’s improves its internal operations to comply with U Sports’ rules in the future.”
Murphy said the league has overhauled its player eligibility procedures. She cited the appointment of Scott Gray as Director of Athletics and Recreation in late 2017, as well as detailed daily tracking on eligibility issues for current and hired students, and making presentations for eligibility education.
“It definitely gives us a strong foundation on eligibility and that’s one of the big improvements that’s been made going forward,” she told CBC.
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