I found this [CIS press release] a couple days ago, but it's taken a little while to sort through the maze of regulations involved. Basically, the York Lions men's soccer team, which was top-ranked in the country as of the last coaches poll, forfeited four games through self-disclosure of an ineligible player. The ineligible player is one Andrea Lombardo of Toronto FC fame, which raises questions of why he was allowed to play in the first place. In any case, York had to forfeit four games and
York's men's head coach is Carmine Isacco, who has previously been the Toronto FC goalkeeping coach (his York bio page says he still is, but the Toronto FC roster page has Eddie Kehoe listed as goalkeeping coach). Just about every recreational TFC fan knows about Lombardo, so you'd expect that most CIS soccer coaches (who would be likely to follow Canadian soccer, at least generally) would also have caught on. It seems logical that Isacco, who was a TFC staff member last year, would be even more aware of Lombardo's experience on the TFC senior squad than the general public. It's possible he wasn't entirely aware of the CIS eligibility regulations, but they aren't all that complicated in this matter.
The CIS eligibility rules are readily available online via the CIS website [link leads to a PDF: go here for the .doc version]. There are two relevant sections. First, the overall section on professional participation (18.104.22.168):
22.214.171.124 Participation as a Professional
126.96.36.199.1 Any professional athlete may participate in CIS competition one year from the date that the athlete last participated in a professional game or event in that sport.
188.8.131.52.2 An athlete who participated in a professional league game, playoff game, or event in a recognized sport of CIS, in the same academic year in which the athlete has participated in post-secondary competition in a recognized sport of CIS, shall only be charged with one year of eligibility. The recognized sports of CIS include football, field hockey, soccer, rugby, volleyball, basketball, ice hockey, cross-country running, track & field, swimming, and wrestling.
184.108.40.206.3 One year of eligibility shall be charged to a professional athlete for each year that the athlete participated in a recognized sport of CIS as a professional, specifically:
A bunch of examples are listed off after this, but the only section relevant to our purposes here is the one on soccer, 220.127.116.11.3.9, which reads:
"An athlete shall be considered a professional for that year in which the athlete played soccer in a semi-professional or professional league, unless the athlete played under the classification of amateur and possessed an amateur card as provided by a National Soccer Association. Specific to Major League Soccer (MLS), players who participate exclusively under a Developmental or Developmental International Contract are classified as amateurs."
Now, the developmental contract part makes sense, as MLS sides have distinct development rosters. Lombardo was an integral part of the full team, though, so it would be hard to consider him as on the developmental side. The first part of that rule is more ambiguous, though: who knows who has an amateur card and who doesn't?
I've actually been looking at this situation for some time, because Lombardo is not the first player to come up under it: he's just the first one where I've seen wrongdoing proven. A key example is Srdjan Djekanovic, who played at four pro clubs in Serbia from 2001-2004 [Wikipedia] before leading UBC to a national title in 2005. Now, he may have had an amateur card for some or all of those years in Serbia. If he didn't, though, 18.104.22.168.3 would seem to indicate that he should have been charged for four years of eligibility for his Serbian play (providing he appeared in at least one pro game every year). In my understanding of the rules, that would allow him to use his fifth year of eligibility to lead UBC to the 2005 title, providing that his last pro game was at least a full year before. I don't know when it was, though, and it could be difficult to find out. Note: those four pro clubs in Serbia and the dates involved are not just a Wikipedia rumour, as they're named in this year's Whitecaps press release announcing the re-signing of Djekanovic.
The Djekanovic case doesn't end here, though: it only gets more interesting. According to that same Wikipedia page, he was on the 2006 Vancouver Whitecaps USL championship team. Now, I followed that team reasonably closely, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't the No.1 keeper, but if he played in even one game, the rules would seem to indicate that he should have been charged with another year of eligibility. You only get five in CIS sports, so that would seem to indicate that his CIS eligibility was gone for good (unless some of those Serbian years were on an amateur card). However, that same Wikipedia article says he was playing for UBC during the 2006 season as well.
Let's go to UBC for some clarity. Fortunately, they have a nice collection of all their press releases from 2006 conveniently available in a PDF file. There, we find that Djekanovic was the UBC keeper in an April exhibition game against the Whitecaps and played again in a pre-season game on Aug. 29. He records a shutout in their first regular-season game, a 4-0 win over the University College of the Fraser Valley (just UFV these days) Cascades and puts up another shutout two days later against the Trinity Western Spartans.
On Saturday, Sept. 16, we get this line about a game against the University of Victoria: "[T]he Vikes (1-1-1) placed two of their five strikes on UBC ‘keeper Elliot Usher, who recorded a shutout in his CIS debut. Usher was filling in for Serge Djekanovic, who was whisked away to Miami by the Vancouver Whitecaps on Friday after their backup went down in practice."
Now, Djekanovic played several games for Vancouver that year, but they seem to have all been exhibition matches. He also appears to have been the backup goalkeeper for their September playoff games, but he returns to UBC on Oct. 1. This is skating perhaps a bit close to the Lombardo line, but he appears not to have played in a regular-season game for the Caps (according to the excellent archived USL team stats), and CIS makes it clear that pre-season and exhibition matches are okay in hockey (22.214.171.124.3.6.4), so you'd expect a similar rationale to apply in soccer. It's not spelled out anywhere in the soccer policies that exhibition games are okay, though, so this might be a technical violation of the rules. In any case, Djekanovic plays the rest of UBC's games, and they lose in the Canada West playoffs. For those counting, this is now his sixth year of eligibility if you include the four pro years in Serbia.
The really interesting stuff comes next, though. Djekanovic is invited to a national team camp in January, which is promoted in a CIS press release. Interestingly, the release includes the line, "Djekanovic is a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps." It's hard to argue that UBC and CIS officials weren't aware of his professional play if they're putting it in press releases, but as mentioned above, he might still be fine at this point with regards to the Whitecaps (if the hockey exhibition rules apply to soccer). It would be interesting to see if he was paid any money for serving as the backup goalkeeper. Payment itself doesn't appear to be necessary, as the CIS rule for basketball reads, "shall include, irrespective of direct or indirect payment, any athlete who has Professionally Participated with a Professional Team, or in a Professional League." Things may be different for soccer, but still, the real issue so far is the application of the Serbian years, and as also mentioned above, those could be legal if he had an amateur card at the time.
Things get dicey from here on in, though. Djekanovic is traded to Toronto FC in April [Toronto MLS FC], and makes eight appearances for their full squad [Wikipedia], including seven starts [Toronto FC]. Those include regular-season games, such as this 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire [USA Today] on July 7, 2007.
Now, you'd get the impression that Djekanovic would have had to wait a year to play CIS soccer again and would be charged with more eligibility in the process, at least according to the statement in the Lombardo situation. You'd also be wrong: he returned to UBC that fall just in time for the playoffs and promptly led the team to another national championship [universitysport.ca].
After this, Djekanovic begins 2008 with the Whitecaps, this time as their starting keeper. He eventually lost the job to Jay Nolly and got cut early in August [Soccer Scene USA]. Guess where he wound up? Right back with those UBC Thunderbirds, where he put up a shutout yesterday [UBC Athletics] against UVic. If you count those Serbian pro years, he's now on his eighth year of eligibility.
I'm not saying UBC or Djekanovic have necessarily done anything wrong. It looks like there's a good chance Djekanovic did possess the amateur card required (suggested in this May interview with Marc Weber of the Vancouver Province, who's also a former UBC sports information director). That leaves questions about why his pro years in Serbia weren't counted against his eligibility, but it might mean that he is allowed to play for TFC, the Whitecaps and UBC, all in the same year or two. It's up for debate if that's the right move, but it may not be technically illegal.
What this shows, though, is that the language used in the CIS release (actually, it's one picked up from OUA) about Lombardo is absolutely inconsistent with what's laid out in the CIS eligibility bylaws. I presume OUA follows those, as the first line of their eligibility site says "(For complete information on CIS Eligibility policies, visit: www.universitysport.ca)". Anyway, here's some quotes from the release:
HAMILTON, Ont. - Ontario University Athletics (OUA) announced today that the York Lions men's soccer team has disclosed they unknowingly used an ineligible player for four games.
The player's participation was in violation of Rule 2.3.10 of the OUA Unit III Eligibility By-Laws, which states that "student-athletes must have an 'amateur status' in order to be eligible for participation in OUA sports."
Andrea Lombardo was a Senior Roster member of Toronto FC of Major League Soccer (MLS) in both 2007 and 2008, with his last game played being April 19, 2008. OUA and Canadian Interuniversity Sports* (CIS) regulations permit participation within MLS as a member of the Developmental Roster without impact on CIS eligibility, however, as Mr. Lombardo was a member of the Senior Roster, he is subject to professional participation regulations. This prohibits Mr. Lombardo from participating in CIS competition within one year of his last professional game.
Mr. Lombardo participated in four regular season games between Sept. 6 and Sept. 14 of this year; a 5-0 win over Guelph on Sept. 6; a 3-0 win over Waterloo on Sept. 7; a 3-1 victory over McMaster on Sept. 13; and a 1-0 win over Brock on Sept. 14. The results of these regular season games have been changed to a 1-0 York loss. All statistics from these games will remain valid, except for those of the ineligible player.
*Aside: Isn't it funny when a press release spells its own organization's name wrong? It's Canadian Interuniversity Sport, guys, not Sports.
If simply appearing in a professional game precludes you from playing in CIS competition for a year, and is grounds enough to cause York to forfeit games, wouldn't that suggest that UBC should forfeit their 2007 championship (and their games so far this year)? The more likely solution is that Djekanovic is allowed to do so because of some paperwork and an eligibility card, while Lombardo must have misfiled something and his school gets punished for it. That doesn't explain the curious case of the missing Serbian years, but maybe there's some loophole that prevents those from being professional. Still, if the problem is not playing professionally in the same year, but playing professionally without an amateur card, that should have been clarified in the release.
If what we're seeing here is a new interpretation of the rule, though, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. If playing for a professional team's full squad is enough to prevent you from playing CIS soccer in the same year, we might see a raft of disqualifications.
Consider one Nana Attakora-Gyan, who I first covered back when he was with the Canadian U-20 team [Queen's Journal, June 2007]. He also played for York last year, as well as TFC's development squad. According to both the bylaws and the release, that isn't a problem.
This year, however, he's already played 183 minutes for TFC [Toronto FC], which under the Lombardo release, should prevent him from playing in CIS soccer for a year. Well, he's listed on the York roster for this year at both the OUA site and their own site. I'm not sure if he actually played a regular-season game for them this year, but he definitely shouldn't be on that roster if the rules as outlined in the Lombardo release are correct. If it's the bylaws that are right, though, he might be fine if he has one of those amateur cards. Funny how a little piece of paper can make so much of a difference.
Another prominent example is Stefan Leslie of Trinity Western and the Whitecaps (first team for both sides in 2006, when TWU won the Canada West title and came second at nationals ). He doesn't seem to be on this year's Spartans roster, but that certainly looks similar to the Lombardo situation to me.
Similar situations undoubtedly occur in women's soccer. Off the top of my head, there's Nikki Wright, who I profiled this summer in the Langley Times. She's spent a good amount of time with the Whitecaps' women's squad, mostly at the academy/development level, but she told me about getting called up to play for the full women's team this summer. According to the language in the Lombardo release, that would suggest that she's a professional. She's also a very impressive rookie [Gary Ahuja, Langley Times, Sept. 16] with the Trinity Western Spartans' women's squad this year. Oh, and she just happened to pick up the CIS female athlete of the week award [Gary Ahuja, Langley Times, Sept. 18] last month.
Moreover, there's one Eilish McConville, who I had the pleasure of covering for the Journal in her last year when she led the Gaels to a silver medal at the national championships. It wasn't the first time I'd seen her, though: she was on the Ottawa Fury squad that played the women's Whitecaps in the W-League championship final earlier that summer, which I covered for the Langley Times. I don't think she played in that game, but she was definitely on the roster and I believe she played in regular-season games earlier that summer. According to the Lombardo release rules as I understand them, Queen's would have to give back those silver medals due to her participation. That would be a shame, as that run remains one of the best Gaels' performances in any sport in my time here.
I don't claim to be an expert on CIS soccer eligibility, and I'm not trying to accuse UBC, Djekanovic, York, Trinity Western, Attakora-Gyan, Leslie, Wright, Queen's, McConville or anyone else mentioned above of any impropriety. There's a good chance there's something I'm not seeing, as all I'm going with here is my experience covering the sport, the bylaws available to the public on the CIS website and the press release I saw earlier this week. Still, those sources certainly seem inconsistent: my own experience and web sleuthing has shown me that CIS has trumpeted its pros in the past and then allowed them to return and play college soccer in the same year.
The point I'm trying to make here is that this doesn't appear to be a unique situation or an isolated incident, at least with the information that's come out so far. It's hard to tell why Lombardo deserves punishment while Leslie and Djekanovic don't. Thus, I feel Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze is being a bit idealistic with this Macleans.ca blog post.
"York University was ranked No. 1 in the country as of this morning in men’s soccer–undefeated in their first eight games and really enjoying life–until a giant bomb fell from the sky and ruined their season. It appears you can’t use former pro soccer players and get away with it. The fact that they managed to play four games with this illegal player (former Toronto FC forward Andrea Lombardo) is just mind blowing. The fact that they didn’t know it was illegal is somewhat hilarious."
From my investigations, this doesn't seem all that mind-blowing or hilarious. Watch CIS soccer for a while, and you'll see plenty of familiar names from their pro connections. The guys mentioned above are just the most blatant examples I could find, but for each of them, there are plenty more players who have spent time with professional clubs (in many cases on the reserve squads, which seems to be legal) floating around CIS. That's not entirely a bad thing: in fact, I argued back in April that it shows the quality of the league [The CIS Blog].
If it's the amateur card that's the issue, please just say so right off the bat. That way, I wouldn't have had to do all this bloody digging in search of a story that may not be anything more than my imagination.
The point is that the distinction between amateur and professional is becoming increasingly blurred in the sports world, and thus it's not particularly mind-blowing that York played Lombardo in four games and probably thought it wouldn't be a problem. What's far more mind-blowing is that the CIS issued such a strongly-worded statement and such severe sanctions against "professionalism" in soccer, but only singled out one team and player. If we want to get rid of everyone with professional connections, I can live with that, but I wouldn't advocate it: it would hurt the quality of the sport and of Canadian soccer development overall, as players would be forced to choose between an education and a soccer career that might not pan out at all. What doesn't appeal to me is creating this kafuffle over "professionals" while only addressing one of them.
In any case, hopefully this will serve as a bit of a discussion-starter around CIS eligibility. I welcome any and all feedback either here or at andrew_bucholtz (at) hotmail.com. I'm happy to hear where I'm wrong or right with this one, and I'd love to hear some more examples of other CIS players who might be considered "professional". If anything of interest comes up on this situation, I'll update this post or add a later one as well.