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

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

The dispute over a player’s eligibility played out in courts in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and included a Remembrance Day hearing over whether the Atlantic championship game known as the Loney Bowl would go ahead, leading to legal bills that almost reached $500,000 for the university.

CBC News obtained documents in an access-to-information request that took almost four years for the university to fully answer. The records reveal details about the frustration felt by officials and the university’s public relations approach, which included locking the gates at a team practice to prevent the media from talking to players and coaches.

“We need to keep the gates locked,” wrote the university’s associate vice-president of external affairs, Margaret Murphy, in a Nov. 13, 2017, email to several school officials.

“I will come down to manage the media. We will let media get photos of the team from a distance. I will still be the only one doing media interviews.

Football fans at a Nov. 14, 2017, game in Wolfville, N.S., hold up a sign targeting Archelaus Jack. (Colleen Jones/CBC)

“The coaches and players need to focus on the game and we want to keep the comments to what we agreed yesterday.”

CBC requested invoices and records in 2018 relating to Archelaus Jack, who suited up for the Saint Mary’s Huskies in the 2017 season. His eligibility was called into question because of time he previously spent as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ practice roster in 2016.

The eligibility issue prompted Atlantic University Sports (AUS) to cancel the Loney Bowl game between Saint Mary’s and Acadia University just days before it was to be held. Saint Mary’s took AUS to court, and a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge subsequently ruled the game should go ahead. It was played on Nov. 14, 2017, and the Huskies lost 45-38 in overtime.

In 2018, the university initially provided CBC News with legal invoices 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 around 1,000 pages, many redacted. Since then, officials have released more and more of the 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 work on the file, with the latest being a university lawyer.

Murphy said the lawyer had a greater understanding of what should be provided under the law. She expects this will result in the university releasing more documents on future access-to-information requests.

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

When word first got out about the eligibility dispute on Nov. 3, 2017, university officials and one of the external lawyers working on their behalf weighed how to respond to a request for comment from a CTV reporter.

Officials agreed on a 30-word statement that said the university had been diligent in its response and there was no issue.

‘The less said the better’

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

The documents show frustration within the Saint Mary’s community.

“I am getting really tired of this,” Karen Oldfield, who at the time was the chair of the university’s board of governors, wrote in a Nov. 13, 2017, email to the school’s president and one of the lawyers working on the university’s behalf.

“I think we should go on the full out attack.”

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

Karen Oldfield, who is the 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 full out attack.’ (Nova Scotia Health)

National also suggested Saint Mary’s rebuild its profile by continuing “key storylines” for university president Robert Summerby-Murray leading up to the 2017 holidays and into 2018 that involved “more interaction with students and campus, celebratory moments, etc.”

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

The report noted the Jack case “resulted in a narrative that suggests 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 report from National.

The company also later helped review media statements from Saint Mary’s.

The eligibility dispute centred on the language involving how long former CFL players must wait before playing at the university level.

The 2017-18 rules said former CFL players who were listed on a roster after Aug. 15 of a given year had to wait one year before they could suit up for a university team.

Saint Mary’s interpreted the one-year wait time as being for one academic year, not a calendar year.

How the legal battle started

The legal battle began in private, but then went public.

Saint Mary’s reached an agreement on Oct. 27, 2017, with U Sports, the governing body for university sports in Canada, that there weren’t any outstanding player eligibility issues.

According to court documents from Ontario, the agreement came about after Saint Mary’s threatened U Sports with 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 took U Sports to court to have the agreement enforced.

Documents obtained by CBC show that even as the legal battle played out privately, U Sports told Saint Mary’s on Nov. 2, 2017, that regardless of how the Jack case was resolved, it would be amending its policies “to reflect explicitly and unambiguously 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 having sat out for 365 days from the date of CFL participation.” This is what the guidelines now say.

University was afraid of ‘serious reputational harm’

Court filings by Saint Mary’s show the university was worried about “serious reputational harm.” They’d heard from alumni and administrative officials “expressing grave concern about the effect of these events upon fundraising, alumni relations, and the recruitment of students to the university in the future.”

The legal fight then shifted to Nova Scotia after the athletic directors of four Atlantic University Sport (AUS) schools filed a complaint with AUS’s judicial committee on Nov. 1, 2017, regarding Jack’s eligibility. The issue became public within days.

Joe Taplin, who was the football team’s interior linebackers coach at the time, was unhappy about this.

“It pains me when the four other institution [sic] mainly through jealousy collaborate behind our back to degrade our school,” he wrote in a Nov. 16, 2017, email to several school officials.

Saint Mary’s spent $475,973.49 on legal bills in Ontario and Nova Scotia on 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 drew condemnation from Tim Houston in 2019, who was the leader of the Official Opposition in Nova Scotia at the time and is now premier.

“And it’s important to us that we’re a province that provides higher education to a number of students, but at the same time, the money that’s invested by taxpayers 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 — “Well over” $100,000, plus a “significant” amount of unpaid legal services, said Graham Brown, the president and CEO of U Sports.

On March 2, 2018, SMU president Summerby-Murray wrote in an email to Mike Mahon, the president of the University of Lethbridge and the chair of U Sports’ board, that the university only proceeded to litigation after U Sports “breached our mutual agreement” and “undermined a collegially-negotiated settlement.”

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

Murphy said the university has overhauled its procedures for player eligibility. She cited the hiring of athletics and recreation director Scott Gray in late 2017, as well as detailed daily tracking on eligibility matters for current and recruited students, and conducting eligibility education presentations.

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

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