Inside a Halifax college’s battle to save face after spending nearly $500K on a football game

As Saint Mary’s University waged a costly public legal battle to play in a 2017 football game, Halifax University hired a high-profile public relations firm for advice on how the institution could improve its public image.

The dispute over a player’s eligibility took place in the courts of Nova Scotia and Ontario, and included a Remembrance Day hearing on whether the Atlantic championship game known as the Loney Bowl would take place, leading to legal bills nearly reaching $500,000 for the university.

CBC News obtained documents in an access to information request that took the university nearly four years to fully respond to. The records reveal details about the frustration felt by officials and the university’s public relations approach, which included closing the doors on a team practice to prevent the media from speaking to players and coaches.

“We need to keep the doors closed,” the university’s associate vice president for external affairs, Margaret Murphy, wrote in a Nov. 13, 2017, email to multiple school officials.

“I’ll go down to manage the media. We’ll let the media get team photos remotely. I’ll still be the only one doing media interviews.”

Soccer fans at a game on November 14, 2017 in Wolfville, NS, hold up a sign pointing to Archelaus Jack. (Colleen Jones/CBC)

“Coaches and players need to focus on the game and we want to keep the feedback on what we agreed on yesterday.”

CBC requested bills and records in 2018 related to Archelaus Jack, who suited up for the Saint Mary’s Huskies in the 2017 season. His eligibility was questioned due to time previously spent as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders practice roster in 2016.

The eligibility issue led Atlantic University Sports (AUS) to cancel the Loney Bowl game between Saint Mary’s and Acadia University just days before it was to take place. Saint Mary’s took AUS to court and a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge subsequently ruled that the game should go ahead. It was played on November 14, 2017 and the Huskies 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 requested records. CBC appealed to the province’s information and privacy commissioner, and the university began releasing records last fall, of which there were about 1,000 pages, many redacted. Since then, officials have released more and more previously redacted material.

In an interview with CBC News, Murphy called the access to information process “a learning experience.” The university had three different information officers working on the file, the last one being a university attorney.

Murphy said the attorney had a better understanding of what the law should provide. She hopes this will result in the university publishing more documents about future access to information requests.

Margaret Murphy led Saint Mary’s University’s communication efforts during the Archelaus Jack affair, which included ordering the gates to the football field closed at practice to prevent the media from questioning the coaches and players. (CBC)

When the eligibility dispute first became known on Nov. 3, 2017, university officials and one of the outside attorneys working on his behalf weighed how to respond to a request for comment from a CTV reporter.

Officials agreed to a 30-word statement saying the university had been diligent in its response and that there was no problem.

‘The less said, the better’

McInnes Cooper’s attorney, Robert Belliveau, who helped represent the university, noted in an email to several of his officials that “the less said, the better.”

The documents show frustration within the community of Santa María.

“I’m really tired of this,” wrote Karen Oldfield, who at the time was the president of the university’s board of trustees, in a Nov. 13, 2017, email to the school’s president and one of the attorneys working at the university. University. benefit.

“I think we should go full attack.”

In a report dated November 17, 2017, three days after the Loney Bowl, National Public Relations recommended that Saint Mary’s suspend media interviews about the case and only provide statements via email.

Karen Oldfield, president and CEO of Nova Scotia Health, was the chair of the Saint Mary’s board of governors at the time of the Jack case. She thought the university ‘should go on the attack’. (Nova Scotia Health)

National also suggested that Saint Mary’s rebuild its profile by continuing with “key stories” for college president Robert Summerby-Murray before the 2017 break and in 2018 that involved “more interaction with students and campus, moments celebration, etc.”

“Consider a good backdrop, create videos of him ‘chatting’ with others. Use more active and stronger/proud language in social media posts to demonstrate leadership and influence.”

The report noted that Jack’s case “resulted in a narrative suggesting that SMU has not acted with integrity or in accordance with its own core values, or the core values ​​of AUS.”

Saint Mary’s spent $2,067.75 on the National report.

Subsequently, the company also helped review Saint Mary’s press statements.

The eligibility dispute centered on language related to how long former CFL players must wait before playing at the collegiate level.

The 2017-18 rules said that former CFL players who were listed after August 15 of a given year had to wait a year before they could dress for a varsity team.

Saint Mary’s interpreted the one-year wait time as corresponding to an academic year, not a calendar year.

How the legal battle began

The legal battle began in private, but was later made public.

Saint Mary’s reached an agreement on October 27, 2017 with U Sports, the governing body for university sports in Canada, that there were no outstanding player eligibility issues.

According to Ontario court documents, the settlement came after Saint Mary’s threatened U Sports with legal action. In exchange for the university not taking 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 took U Sports to court to make fulfill the agreement.

Documents obtained by the CBC show that even as the legal battle played out in private, U Sports told Saint Mary’s on Nov. 2, 2017 that regardless of how Jack’s case was resolved, it would amend its policies “to accurately reflect explicit and unambiguous the position of our national office and membership, which is that student-athletes in these circumstances should not be eligible to compete in U Sports competition until they have been out for 365 days from the date of participation in the CFL”. This is what the guidelines now say.

The university feared “serious reputational damage”

Saint Mary’s court filings show that the university was concerned about “serious reputational damage”. They had heard from alumni and administrative officials “expressing serious concern about the effect of these events on fundraising, alumni relations, and future college student recruitment.”

The legal fight then moved to Nova Scotia after athletic directors from four Atlantic University Sport (AUS) schools filed a complaint with the AUS judiciary committee on November 1, 2017 regarding Jack’s eligibility. The problem became public in a matter of days.

Joe Taplin, who was the football team’s inside linebackers coach at the time, was not happy about this.

“It hurts me when the other four institutions [sic] primarily through jealousy they collaborate behind our backs to degrade our school,” he wrote in a Nov. 16, 2017, email to multiple school officials.

Saint Mary’s spent $475,973.49 in legal bills in Ontario and Nova Scotia in the case. For the university’s 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, the university received $36.25 million and $37.8 million, respectively, from the province, according to figures provided by Saint Mary’s.

This led to the conviction of Tim Houston in 2019, who was the Leader of the Official Opposition in Nova Scotia at the time and is now the Prime Minister.

“And it’s important to us that we are a province that provides higher education to a number of students, but at the same time, the money that taxpayers spend is for the purpose of educating people,” he said at the time.

How much other parties spent on legal fees

Other institutions racked up legal bills as part of the court fights:

  • Acadia University — $26,254.48.
  • Atlantic University Sport: $44,000.
  • U Sports — “Over” $100,000in addition to a “significant” amount of 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 only proceeded to litigation after that U Sports “violated our mutual agreement.” ” and “undermined a collegially negotiated agreement”.

“Having said that, I am committed to ensuring that Saint Mary’s improves its internal processes to comply with the U Sports rules in the future.”

Murphy said the university has revised its procedures for player eligibility. He cited the hiring of athletic and recreation director Scott Gray in late 2017, as well as closely monitoring daily eligibility issues for current and recruited students, and conducting educational eligibility presentations.

“It certainly gives us a firm footing on eligibility and that’s one of the big improvements going forward,” he told the CBC.

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