Arthur: CFL sends wrong message on head injuries


We were always going to judge Jeffrey Orridge’s second big turn as the commissioner of the Canadian Football League on a curve, if only because last year he appeared to know less about the league than anybody else in the room. It’s a small league but a big job, and last year it showed.

On his second attempt at a state-of-the-league press conference, Orridge was better, sure. He slipped here and there, like when he plugged CFL dot com, which while it is not the league’s website, is available to a buyer at the right price. And in the end, Jeffrey Orridge had completed his ascension from a relative naif to a salesman, if not a salesman that you’d trust with the mortgage payment. He was better, and with several board of governors reps in the room he likely had to be.

It helped that he had something to sell. There was plenty of focus on connectivity and metrics and Instagram and Twitter and Facebook engagement, and this was surely the first commissioner’s address in the history of sport to mention The Rum Hut in Winnipeg. There was a staunch defence of officials who can sometimes seem indefensible, and a thin defence of the blizzard of ticket giveaways for this Grey Cup. There was good news in terms of marginal TV rating increases (versus declines over the past two years), offensive improvement (which matters) and a pile of close games.

But then there were the questions about health and safety, and that’s when Jeffrey Orridge became a real live football commissioner. He was asked, what is the league’s position on a link between the early onset of degenerative brain diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), dementia and Alzheimer’s — something the NFL has acknowledged in its class-action settlement with former players — and football?

“It’s still a matter of debate and discourse as to what the linkage may be, but we are connected with the medical and scientific community and we’re constantly talking to them about, you know, their findings,” he said.

“So what is the league’s position on that, then?” came the follow-up.

“The league’s position is that there is no conclusive evidence at this point,” said Orridge. “And as I said, we continue to work with them and monitor the progress that they’re making in terms of getting a greater understanding of whether or not there is a linkage.”

Of course, he has to say stuff like this. The CFL can’t afford major legal settlements, and there are already a handful of smaller concussion cases going through the courts. But from the “I’m not a medical expert” answer to the basic denials, the answers were straight out of the NHL playbook, and the NFL playbook.

Now, nobody thinks the CFL is bargaining in bad faith when it comes to safety. Nobody thinks they’re in the same league as the NFL, where denial was an industry. Litigation is an issue, and for the CFL could be existential.

But while it was expected, that didn’t make it any less disappointing. A few hours later the CFL Players Association held their news conference. Jeff Keeping, the president of the CFLPA, said, “A statement like that underlines the problem we’re faced with.” Brian Ramsey, the union’s executive director, said the players had discussed Orridge’s comments and said, “As progressive as we are as a league and as a country, it’s disappointing to hear comments like that.”

“I think Jeff hit the nail on the head,” said Hamilton offensive lineman Peter Dyakowski, who is on the union executive. “Now, why did he say it? Maybe he feels there’s a liability reason that he has to say that, they have to take that position. I have a tough time believing that he truly believes that. And (if he does), it’s like (cigarette company) Philip Morris. And the NFL was like that for a long time.

“You’ll never fully sanitize football, but there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to reduce the risk of a concussion, to reduce cumulative concussions, and to keep our players from playing with concussions. There’s a lot we can address there, and player safety shouldn’t be a negotiation.”

“I understand the CFL commissioner is restricted in what he can say due to a pending lawsuit, but the comments he chose to make are disappointing and misleading to CFL players and the greater football community,” said Chris Nowinski, executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “To set the record straight, the existence of a link between CTE and football is no longer debated among serious scientists.”

The union is focused on reducing contact where possible — they have already limited full-pads practices to 17 per year, but are focused on reducing training camp volume and intensity, and reducing the compressed schedule that can force players to play several games in a short span of time. They consider it an issue that everybody should want to focus on.

And they’re right. After his media session Orridge held the commissioner’s state-of-the-league address, and when asked about player safety he reiterated the same basic points. And next to him, TSN analyst and CFL Hall of Famer Matt Dunigan said that football had turned his brain into an Etch A Sketch.

“Yep, an Etch A Sketch,” said Dunigan afterwards, shaking his head to make the point. “I mean, I can’t remember my college career.”

“There’s a reason that gladiators aren’t around anymore,” says Marwan Hage, who had a 10-year career as an all-star centre with Hamilton and is on the union executive. “It was fun for a couple hundred years, but eventually the lions got tired.”

Football was good to Hage. He escaped his career without one diagnosed concussion though he had one smash-up in the SkyDome, and “I saw Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, all my friends and family.” He has retired and owns several Toronto-area Tim Hortons franchises.

He also has two sons. They aren’t allowed to play football.

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