The future of collegiate sports in Canada has never looked so uncertain. Helping to navigate the U of M through these unprecedented times is Gene Muller, the university’s director of athletics and recreation.
With the help of Muller and the rest of the athletic administration, special resources were set up so athletes and coaches were still able to find success in their sports after fitness facilities were shut down due to code-red restrictions.
“Our strength and conditioning have developed programs for people to do at home,” Muller said. “There will be a reach out to [athletes] to what facilities you have access to, to what equipment you have access to and then working within those parameters. I know that some teams have had […] different alumni [come in to do] professional development workshops.
“I would say the one thing we have done is to be deliberate in our engagement,” Muller said.
“I also know of universities that have just left their student athletes, [saying], ‘We’ll see you back in six months.’ We have encouraged, and our coaches have done, regular connection and feedback.”
Outside of athletics, Muller and the administration have set up programs to make sure athletes are mentally healthy during the pandemic.
“We’ve got two mental health workers that have been attached to the integrated support team that have been working with our athletes,” he said.
One of the most essential areas of an athletics program is having a strong recruiting class. Although amateur athletic competitions and in-person meetings have been few and far between, Muller remains optimistic for the 2021 recruiting class.
“I actually think that we’re going to end up with a good recruiting class out of a [COVID-19] year and the reason is that many other universities would recruit in Manitoba,” Muller said. “I think many parents and athletes are concerned about the lasting impact and travel and cross-province travel and uncertainty, so I think we’ve managed to retain some really talented Manitoban prospects. I think recruiting is going to be good for us this year.”
Like many others, the athletic and recreation department suffered financially in 2020. Muller outlines where the losses hit the hardest.
“Our main source of funding is the sport and rec fee that that students pay and last year [in the] summer we lost 100 per cent of that,” Muller said. “This year, I think we are now on 70 per cent sport and rec fee funding, which impacts our funding level quite drastically.”
“For Bison Sports, we’ve had to reassign and probably change some of our job and our work allocation in order to be able do everything that we need to do […] it’s been very challenging, but I have been very proud of the way in which we’ve responded,” he said.
“I have a great sense of compassion for what [student athletes are] going through and I also know that […] sometimes sport fills vacuums and voids in our life and sport makes up for other areas of deficit.”
Although the recreation department was hit hard, Muller maintains that the Active Living Centre will be available for members the moment restrictions are lifted on fitness facilities, and said U of M facilities will also be available to the Winnipeg Ice of the Western Hockey League. With a 24-game schedule being approved by the WHL with a date to be determined, Muller maintains that the Ice are welcome to call the U of M home barring COVID-19 restrictions.
After a fall and winter semester without competition, Canada West has begun planning for a 2021 return to sport.
“Everyone’s planning for a full 2021,” Muller said. “We’re busy working not so much with U-Sports but with Canada West and our conference, so I know that the schedulers are working on two different schedules. One is the status quo schedule, which they did year after year, but then also an adjusted schedule [so] that if COVID-19 still persists, […] we can at least still have some level of connection and competition, but those details haven’t been made known yet.”
Muller and administration have been hard at work to preserve the future of Bison Sports, yet Muller offers high praise to student athletes.
“I admire the fact that they’ve stuck to it and they’ve remained engaged and they remained committed to their improvement,” Muller said.
“For University of Manitoba students, [my final message] is just the regret that I have around what this has done to people […] I realize that people have suffered through this and just remind them that it’ll soon be over and we’ll all be better off, I hope.”