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Canada's university-level sports teams not as diverse as their student bodies, U of T study finds

U of T researchers studied data from nine Canadian universities and found that white student athletes were over-represented in every sport and team examined (photo by Martin Bazyl)

–Canadian university sports teams aren’t reflective of the diversity of their campuses because of an over-representation of white student athletes, new University of Toronto research suggests. 

Researchers at U of T’s Centre for Sport Policy Studies compared 2016 data from nine Canadian universities, representing nearly 1,600 student athletes and 65 teams, with the self-reported racial demographics of students at eight universities included in the National Survey of Student Engagement in 2014.

The results showed that white student athletes were over-represented in every sport and team included in the report in comparison to their numbers in the student population at their university.

Student athletes who were white, for example, accounted for over 90 per cent of the players on ice hockey and volleyball teams, approximately 80 per cent of the players on field hockey teams, three-quarters of football players and almost two-thirds of basketball players. Basketball, with 34.3 per cent "other than white" players, was the sport that came closest to the proportion of non-white students (47.25 per cent) at the eight universities where demographic data were available.

The universities included in the study were U of T, Ryerson University, York University, McMaster University, Queen’s University, Western University, McGill University and the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia.

Read more about the study in the Toronto Star

Professor Peter Donnelly, the centre's director and a co-author of the report with Madison Danford, says there are a whole series of societal reasons for the disproportionately low number of other-than-white players on university sport teams. 

“There can be a lack of opportunity to play and develop skills before university, in school or community sport, which involves both the availability of the sport and the means to participate,” says Donnelly, who teaches at U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education.

“There may be no role models in the sport and the community, and sometimes there are stereotypical expectations. For example, because mostly white players have played hockey, volleyball or field hockey, other-than-white students can see these sports as less relevant or welcoming to them, and coaches can overlook other-than-white students because they don't expect talented players to come from those communities.” 

There are probably some more influences, according to Donnelly, including implicit bias. However, it would be a mistake to focus on any single cause, he says.

“The data we have do not tell us why – they just suggest that there may be a problem that needs to be looked into in future research that focuses on the reasons for the disproportionate opportunity to participate.”   

In fact, Donnelly and Danford acknowledge the many academics, athletes, coaches and sport administrators for encouraging them to undertake this study.

“Universities are progressive places, and they are supposed to be ahead of the curve with regard to societal problems,” says Donnelly. “Our faculty’s Task Force on Race and Indigeneity is doing important work to take on some of these problems, and the data in this report is the first and only actual data on race and sport in Canadian universities,” he says.

“The data are highly suggestive that there is an unequal opportunity to participate based on race -- this is not to suggest that it is deliberate or planned, but it does mean that it needs to be looked at and dealt with.”

The report suggests that, if the data are confirmed, universities could begin to address the problem by, for example, becoming involved in targeted athlete development programs at the high school and community levels.

Donnelly acknowledges these recommendations may not be enough to immediately make university teams more representative of the student body, but he says they are a start and something that universities can begin to do immediately.