It should never be surprising to hear a lawyer talk like a lawyer but it was still shocking to hear CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge’s attempt to tap dance around the growing body of scientific evidence which links football and concussions to a host of brain injuries, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
The league is facing lawsuits from former CFLers and that’s likely what had Orridge so skittish at his state of the league address Friday in Toronto. But saying there’s “no conclusive evidence at this point” to connect the game to the struggles of current and former players is, at best, tone deaf to the existential challenges football is facing at every level.
Even the NFL, long the leaders in these types of denials, copped to the connection at a congressional hearing last March. Still not convinced? Will Smith made a movie about it. It was called “Concussion.”
It certainly appalled current members of the CFL Players Association, who held their own state of the union address later Friday afternoon.
“This shows the underlying problem that we’re dealing with. To say there is no link makes it appear there is a culture that wants to overlook the health and safety risks facing our players,” said Ticat offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski, who also serves as the union’s treasurer. “To argue against a link at this point is like saying that water’s not wet.”
The union also took issue with Orridge’s claim that concussions across the league fell from 50 to 40 this season. While CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay didn’t directly challenge the number – the NFL’s rose by 32 per cent in 2015 – he said the league hadn’t shared it with the union.
“The most disappointing thing is hearing that second hand,” said Ramsay, a former Ticat.” That’s our membership. That’s exactly what we’re talking about.”
Orridge’s comments on head injuries were just the most prominent example of the commissioner’s effort to focus hard on the positives while doing his best to minimize the league’s many challenges. He trumpeted the CFL’s modest gains in TV viewership and ever-expanding social media presence while glossing over some the large elephants – or maybe it should be zebras – in the room.
Orridge said he believes the state of officiating has improved in the CFL – a tough argument to make in Hamilton where the outcome of at least two games were adversely affected by what league later acknowledged were missed calls.
“I share the fans’ disappointment and frustration, there’s no doubt about that. But I think, on balance, our officials do an amazing job. They get the vast, vast majority of calls right,” Orridge said. “In the event that there’s a mistake made, we admit to that mistake. We own up to it. And the only way you can improve is if you admit to making a mistake and try to figure out how to fix it.”
Orridge said the league plans to “review the reviews” in an effort to improve the CFL’s replay challenge system and acknowledged the CFL erred by setting expectations too high after the Toronto Argonauts moved to BMO Field. The pricing of Grey Cup ticket sales, which were initially priced into the stratosphere, was also botched. He called the Pizza Pizza promotion that featured two Grey Cup tickets as part of $30 combo deal an “unauthorized promotion” that was quickly halted.
This was Orridge’s second state of the league address and he deserves credit for framing the league as a forward-thinking, progressive entity intent on appealing to a younger and broader fan base via social media. But his comments on concussions are troubling step backward at a time when the league – and the game itself – can hardly afford it.