What Ricky Ray’s injury really says about the CFL

As news of Ricky Ray’s injury spread across social media, the words of support and offers of prayer came pouring in. Ray is the rare CFL personality for whom respect among both fans and fellow players is essentially universal given the length and excellence of his on-field career and his professionalism and demeanour off it. Ray is a great player and he seems like a nice guy and so it was hard to see him lying motionless on the field.

In the most important of ways, however, Ray is just like any other CFL player: the Argonauts are on the hook for his medical expenses for exactly a year from the date of the injury. After that, he’s on his own. In some sense, the clock is already ticking.

Now, all indications are that Ray won’t need a long and expensive recovery and rehabilitation process. The most recent update says he has feeling in all his extremities but remains in hospital. At very least, that’s encouraging.

But Ray’s injury is another stark reminder of the risks CFL players face on each and every play and the devastating nature of the potential consequences. There was no penalty on the Ray hit and it wasn’t dirty: it was a football play, albeit it one with potentially dire consequences.

There are plenty of real-life examples.

Three days ago, former CFL defensive back Jonathon Hefney sent out a simple tweet to his less than 1,300 followers:

In October of 2015, Hefney was carted off the field after a collision with the Ottawa Redblacks Patrick Lavoie. Hefney suffered three fractured vertebrae and nerve damage that left him with limited use of his arm. The Montreal Alouettes, for whom Hefney played when he was hurt, covered the cost of Hefney’s first surgery via insurance but their obligations ended a year after the injury. Hefney used a GoFundMe campaign to pay for a second procedure. It’s unclear how he paid for this latest one.

Hefney’s plight is well-documented, particularly in this excellent piece by PostMedia’s Gord Holder. It includes heart-breaking passages like this:

“As far as putting a fork in my hand and eating, I’m just working on those skills,” he said. “It’s pretty much like I’m a kid again, you know, with the right arm. … I’m learning how to eat with it again. I really haven’t been writing yet because I’ve been writing with my left hand. I’m pretty decent writing with my left hand, because I used to do it all the time when I was younger, so I’ve got that down. But, shoot, they’re talking about another surgery.”

The CFL players’ association has said it wants to make extended medical benefits for injured players an issue in the next CBA negotiations. The league, despite their constant of talk of wanting to improve player safety, will likely fight them tooth and nail. One argument will most certainly be economic: we can’t afford to pay medical costs of injured players in perpetuity, given our current fiscal challenges.

There is a certain level of dissonance required by everyone involved at this point. The league and its owners must be comfortable putting players in harm’s way knowing their responsibility is capped by a time limit. Fans and media must be OK with enjoying the game despite the very real, long-term consequences its participants will surely face. It’s easier to just watch the game and not think about it too hard.

What Ricky Ray’s injury did was drop that veil for a moment, drive home the unspeakable point in a real and terrifying way: one of the league’s bona fide good people strapped to a stretcher, his future unknown.

But despite Ray’s status and no matter the final health outcome, nothing will change – or at least very little and not very quickly. Not fast enough for Ray, should he need it, and certainly not fast enough to help Hefney. And if we’re OK with letting Ricky Ray, future Hall-of-Famer and an all-around nice guy, face his future without a safety net of any kind, well, I’m not sure what that says about any of us.

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