By Ian Absten, Contributor
Recently, the Canadian Football League announced that it was entering into formal talks with Redbird Capital and Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) with an eye towards a mutually beneficial relationship. While both parties played coy with the nature of these discussions, social media pundits began immediate speculation that there was a merger with the XFL afoot. There is no reason to doubt that conclusion. Things seem just a little too quiet since March 10th to assume that impending announcements will be anything but impactful. Some sort of alignment, parallel associations, a shared championship game, rules co-operation and revenue stream platforms are surely being discussed in not-so-smoky boardrooms somewhere on this continent.
To those that closely follow, it seems obvious that MLSE has decided to drag the league into strange territory. It actually wants to see the CFL become a profit machine! Imagine that.
What does this have to do with content for an on-line progressive magazine? Simple- it informs our fear of change.
Declaration- I am one of those old white guys in their late 50’s who was raised on the CFL. I watched Leon McQuay fumble. I bought my cheap A + P tickets and snuck down into better seats. I sat through the pain of the Edmonton dynasty, admiring as a black quarterback lead a team through Grey Cup after Grey Cup, naively wondering how the NFL could keep Warren Moon from playing simply because his skin was darker. I am a self-identified lifer. But I have watched the city gradually lose interest in the Argonauts for a list of reasons too long for one column. Blaming the citizens of the Big Smoke for apathy is intellectually lazy. It’s a myriad of causes not exclusive to the NFL. The Blue Jays, the Raptors and TFC have pulled the already stretched entertainment dollars away from the Boatmen. There is little left for a league perceived as second rate by a citizens that- in some ways- long for approval from American cousins as a big-time city, and the CFL is by no means a match.
Progress often means letting go of things we perceive as cornerstones of our socio-political beliefs, even our heritage. One must remember that borders are only imagined constructs set by humans who seem bent on destroying the planet. They were not carved out by a god. They were not set in any form of permanence. We forget that, especially in the age of narcissistic social media and celebrity worship that gifted our American neighbours with the most corrupt and worst president in their history.
So, to those who fear the destruction of a piece of Canadian heritage- that is in and of itself- an imagined construct, I’d like to suggest that we look at this imminent merger as progress, not as destruction.
Here’s a few short thoughts.
The Stanley Cup was awarded to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association in 1893. That most celebrated of trophies is intended for the best Canadian hockey team. Yet somehow, we have no problem seeing it awarded, year after year, to American franchises. The Grey Cup, in all its 108-year history, could be awarded in the same way. No one died when Baltimore won it in 1995. Instead of drowning in angst if the St. Louis Battlehawks hoist Lord Grey’s trophy, why not be as proud as we are of our hockey cup? If framed in that way, it is progress, not destruction.
Rules are malleable. Always have been- always will be. Without lecturing on the game, I would ask those who doubt my feelings to take a few minutes to look up why the field is called a gridiron. I would hazard a guess that less than 1% of football fans know the answer. Hint- the field once looked like a checkerboard, with horizontal and vertical lines. I’ll leave the rest up to you. The point is- I love the three-down game- but I also loved the Houston Oilers, the Toronto Tornados and NCAA students staying all four years. I’m sure the probable merger will involve some hybrid rules that are a nod to the Canadian game- the XFL already did that once, I’m sure their ownership group will be attentive. Yes, there will have to be smaller fields to fit American stadiums. Yes, we may or may not switch to 4 downs, like many high-school associations in our country do already. But we might be able to use 15 yard endzones, the CFL timing rules, a fair-catch and unlimited motion. Instead of focusing on what you might lose, think progressively about what you might gain.
The Canadian ratio is a sticking point. Yes, I believe that the Canadian teams should hold spots for Canadian players, but forcing a coach to start them is ridiculous. If our teams are held to a standard of dressing ten nationals, then that is where it should end. After that, it is up to that 25% of the roster to seize the opportunity they are given and earn a starting role. But I have always held one caveat- at least one of the 3 quarterbacks that dress for a game must be a national This has been a short-sighted mistake by the CFL. Having a clip-board carrying Canadian on the sidelines virtually ensures that some stars will one-day emerge, and the next Russ Jackson will be upon us.
With all the possible rule changes afoot, the new league needs to practice complete avoidance of the NFL schedule. The fresh look “Continental Football Association”, with CFL and XFL divisions, should play a fourteen-game schedule starting in May and finishing with the playoffs in August. Less can sometimes be more. The Grey Cup should be contested on Labour Day, just before the NFL kicks off. With single game betting and heightened demand for new streaming and content, the league may just be on the cusp of greatness. But not if it refuses to attempt to progress.
I was born in the 1960’s. There were six teams in the NHL, and nine in the CFL. There were eight teams in the NBA, including the Syracuse Nationals and Cincinatti Royals. There were no Raptors, no Blue Jays, and no Las Vegas Posse. Teams come and go. Leagues come and go. The CFL still has nine teams, and jumps from crisis to crisis, and its largest city and revenue driver completely refuses to attend games. I have been there, and some of the announced crowds of 10,000 are clearly exaggerated beyond mid four figures.
I would suggest that we, as Canadian football fans, lean into the wind. Embrace the change. Invite the people of St. Louis, Houston, and Seattle into the fold. I think that if they start attending Grey Cups on Canadian soil for the first few years, we will have a niche market of die-hard fans.
Instead of biting our nails in fear, let’s imagine a team from St. Louis visiting Regina in June, with a few thousand American fans in tow. How quickly would those fans become enamoured with the followers of the green ‘Riders and the environment they create.
I wish the league could have expanded successfully with its three down format and all the rules intact. But it is not feasible. To co-operate, negotiate and compromise is the only way forward, and I look forward to the results. I want to see the league progress. And for those of you that disagree, take solace in the fact that if this new league fails, and if MLSE scores an NFL franchise in its wake (I hope they keep the Argonaut name), and if the CFL becomes a quasi-professional outfit that uses an elite USport/CJFL model, we can always go back to awarding Lord Grey’s cup to the champions of Canadian football. The tradition will survive. But for now, let us take a step at thinking bigger, at competing with the “big boys”, at progressing. It is not life or death. Much of the Canadian/American dynamic is shaped by an imagined border anyway. Let us progress with our history in mind, and a competitively progressive spirit in our hearts.