The CFL – is this the death knell or a chance to reinvent the league?

The only thing I remember about the game is Pierre Trudeau’s outfit. A jaunty fedora, a cape, a pale blazer, a flower in his lapel.

It was late November, 1970, and I was living with a group of francophone students in Trois-Rivieres. We were gathered around a small black-and-white TV set in the living room, watching this curiosity that was three-down football. The Alouettes had defeated the Calgary Stampeders, 23-10. Sonny Wade was the most valuable player and Trudeau, in an outfit for the ages, was presenting Lord Grey’s trophy to the winners.

For me, that was the beginning of a 50-year-love affair with the Canadian Football League that has survived everything from the misguided attempt to expand the league into the U.S. to the death (and subsequent rebirth) of the Alouettes.

I have shivered on the field while covering Grey Cup games, clashed with former Als GM Jim Popp, spent a wild week in San Diego with Ordinary Superstar Johnny Rodgers and pulled for the CFL even when the constant rain of flags made it almost unwatchable.

But I won’t be watching CFL football this season – and I may never watch it again. Nor will anyone else. Monday, the league announced that there will be no 2020 season. Its only game plan was the hope for an interest-free from the federal government – which is not a business plan at all. When that was not forthcoming, the league and its inept commissioner, Randy Ambrosie, announced that the CFL season was yet another casualty of the pandemic.

There were rosy, optimistic statements about a return in 2021, but that’s about as certain as a baby’s bottom. No one knows whether the pandemic will be under control a year from now and without it, the CFL as it’s currently formulated can’t possibly play. The league needs fans in the seats to operate, not cardboard cutouts, and if that isn’t feasible the situation will be no different than it is now.

Some were trying to paint Pierre Trudeau’s son as the villain in all this, because the government wasn’t going to back a league that would come for a loan without a viable plan – but the blame rests squarely with the league itself. Justin Trudeau has done everything possible to get this country through the pandemic with as little damage as possible but he can’t be expected to extend that largesse to a league that doesn’t have its act together.

This year, for the first time since 1919, the Grey Cup won’t be awarded. Whether that’s the beginning of the end for the CFL or a blessing in disguise remains to be seen. The CFL could use this time to reset, rethink and reinvent its product – or it could limp off into the sunset and expire with a whimper.

Ambrosie, a huge disappointment as commissioner, would have to come out of virtual hiding to offer some leadership. The owners would have to stop bickering and act for the good of the league. And, let’s face it, the CFL would need some luck in terms of a vaccine that could effectively end the pandemic and make fans in the stands a possibility.

For most of the past 20 years, the CFL has faced the same problems, especially failing attendance in its three largest markets – Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Montreal revived somewhat this past season, thanks mainly to coach Khari Jones and quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and it’s conceivable that the B.C. Lions could rebound with a good team – but Toronto is a perpetual problem for the CFL, with football fans in the Centre of the Universe openly lusting for the NFL and largely impervious to the charms of the Canadian league.

Whereas the CFL ranks first in Saskatchewan and no worse than second in several other markets, it’s a dismal fifth in Toronto, behind the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays and Toronto FC – and that’s unlikely to change, even with a better team.

Any rethink of the Canadian Football League should at least consider doubling down on its Canadian identity. Reduce or eliminate import players from the U.S. altogether, emphasize the league’s differences with the NFL rather than the tedious similarities and, perhaps, simply abandon Toronto in favour of a smaller market (Halifax?) where the sport could reign supreme and reflect the success of the Roughriders in Saskatchewan.

The on-field product needs help as well. I’ve spent 25 years beginning the CFL to order its officials to glue their flags to their pockets. There are some penalties that need to be called (especially hits to the head) but many that are better not called – especially plays away from the ball. But for years, it’s seemed the first priority of the officiating crews was to negate spectacular plays with cheap calls and that officials firmly believe people buy tickets to watch them throw flags.

Hand-in-hand with the silly penalties is the overuse of video replay, especially reviewing pass interference calls. That’s a judgment call in every case, so holding up a game for five minutes to show endless replays of a call that is going to be subjective anyway is counterproductive. I would ban video reviews entirely, but if you’re not going to do that then at least confine it to scoring plays.

If it’s to return, the league has at least a dozen other issues to solve, beginning with relations between players and owners, which might be at an all-time low. And all this may be moot: if the CFL can’t play in front of fans next season, the league might be defunct.

Many fans will say that’s no big deal, they prefer the NFL anyway – but it is a big deal. The CFL is one of the institutions that knit this big, sprawling country together. It’s Canadian, even with the imports, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned during this pandemic, being Canadian is the best thing about us.

Then there’s the enduring image of Pierre Trudeau in cape and fedora. Imagine Richard M. Nixon rocking that ensemble.

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