The hits that led to the injury to Edmonton Eskimos running back C.J. Gable on Friday night pose two very different questions for commissioner Randy Ambrosie and the CFL.
First, let’s get the easy one out of the way: the headshot by Toronto Argonaut Dylan Wynn on a prone and possible unconscious Gable was a dirty play that likely warrants a suspension. The only question is how severe the discipline should be.
Wynn was flagged on the play and likely should have been ejected – again, referees have the authority to kick a player out for an “act of excessive roughness” – and Ambrosie will likely be calling this weekend to discuss the matter. The play is similar to the hit by Ottawa Redblacks linebacker Kyries Hebert against Calgary receiver DaVaris Daniels for which Hebert was suspended one game by the league after he, according to the league “launched himself into the air and led with the crown of his helmet… while the player was in a defenceless position.”
While the plays are obviously different, the description of the Hebert offence matches what Wynn did to Gable.
The only thing that might save Wynn from suspension: he doesn’t have Hebert’s long history of dirty hits.
But what about the initial hit from Argonaut defensive lineman Troy Davis that seemed to do much of the initial damage? That case is far more complicated.
Davis doesn’t appear to lead with the crown of his helmet or launch himself at Gable – in fact, his feet are on the ground when contact is made. He’s clearly making an attempt to wrap Gable up and bring him to the ground.
Meanwhile, Gable appears to to be ducking his head in a defensive manner when contact is made, though it’s possible he was trying to bulldoze Davis and gain some excess yards. That’s an important distinction: in the video it used to explain its reasons for fining Montreal running back Tyrell Sutton this week, the league said by way of explanation “he doesn’t get low to protect himself or brace for contact,” indicating that a defensive manoeuvre is looked at differently than an innately aggressive one.
While the Wynn play is clearly dirty, the Davis hit is more difficult to assess and it demonstrates the challenges posed in trying to legislate head hits out of the game. Should Davis be fined or suspended? Should Gable? And if the Davis play feels dirty, that’s likely because out of the outcome, one that left Gable seemingly unconscious on the field.
The league has talked constantly about its push to improve player safety in recent years, particularly since Ambrosie took over as commissioner. The Hebert suspension and the Sutton fine are examples of that philosophy in action and Wynn presents yet another opportunity. But the Gable play presents a different challenge: how to police plays that aren’t so clear-cut.
One of the common refrains is that it will be impossible to remove the inherent risk from football and it’s possible that Gable’s injury is just one of those things. And that in itself is an altogether different challenge: a “football play” can leave a star running back unconscious on the field with nobody to blame but the game itself.