Within the silliness of #sockgate the CFL has some real issues

Here’s the biggest takeaway from Sportsnet reporter and occasional 3DownNation columnist Arash Madani’s piece on the CFL fining more than 20 players for sock-related uniform violations during the Grey Cup:

Are we really going to call it #sockgate?

Apparently we are because it would appear this story has – and let me apologize for this in advance – legs. It’s already caused a TSN radio personality to fire back and led to the latest in a series of mildly entertaining Twitter skirmishes between Madani and CFL director of communications Paulo Senra.

Reaction from the hardcore CFL Twitterati has been predictable enough: to slam Madani for his supposed bias against the league. This is a common refrain every time Madani – an employee of Sportsnet, blood nemesis to CFL rights holder TSN – offers up any criticism of the league whatsoever.

That Madani has worked for two teams and has written some excellent pieces for 3Down usually goes without recognition: as per usual, the focus is only on the negative. While I don’t always agree with the tone of Madani’s criticism, most leagues have outspoken critics or ones who prefer to use a sharp stick to make their point. Certainly a big boy league like the CFL should be able to take one, largely Twitter-based voice of dissent.

Focusing on the messenger instead of the message – which I just spent two paragraphs doing, smh – is to miss a couple of key points here.

While it’s easy to get distracted by the fact that we’re talking about socks, for crying out loud, the story follows the larger narrative – fair or not – that the league is focused on the wrong things. While I didn’t necessarily agree with the decision to tie the uniform violations and the recent flap over the commissioner’s comments on concussions in the opening paragraph of the story, the point is reasonable enough: the league is focused on picking out drapes and curtains for a building that may or may not be on fire.

Like it or not, the CFL has some very real problems: officiating, replay, concussions, TV viewership, attendance in places like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. The Great Grey Cup Pizza Giveaway looks even more damning in light of TFC selling out the MLS Cup in less time then it would take to order a pizza, never mind get it delivered.

There was precious little acknowledgement of any of these issues in Jeffery Orridge’s recent state-of-the-league address during Grey Cup week, which seemed relentless in its touting of shiny baubles like website views (without any real numbers) or social media engagements. The foray into concussions – where he stated the league’s position was that there was no definitive link between football and CTE – was just the thing that garnered all the headlines.

The CFL needs to make it clear to fans, the media and the general sporting audience that it understands the myriad of challenges it’s facing and that it has a clear plan for dealing with those challenges. Until it does, it will vulnerable to things like #sockgate.

The other interesting element to the #sockgate story was the CFLPA’s willingness to not only speak out on it but to formulate a thoughtful and cohesive message. The union’s communications strategy for much of the time that I’ve covered the league has vacillated between kinda decent to full-on train wreck, including a recent period when it was virtually impossible to get a former union president to return a phone call.

That appears to have changed under recently-hired executive director Brian Ramsay and new president Jeff Keeping. Their first ever Grey Cup week press conference focused on union initiatives and player safety, then got a gift when Orridge open the door on concussions: they rightfully drove a truck through it.

The messaging from Ramsay and Keeping in the #sockgate story echoed the idea the league has its priorities wrong and emphasized that communication between the CFL and its players is sorely lacking – a message they also stressed during the concussion discussion in November. If a newly organized and focused CFLPA is going to hold the league accountable for his decision-making, then that’s something else that Orridge now has to worry about: fans will generally side with players right up to the moment they want to go on strike.

The real lessons of #sockgate aren’t about socks at all. But like a little hole at the tip of the big toe, what starts as a minor irritant can soon become something truly uncomfortable.

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