Why the CFL & CFLPA want to reduce the ratio (and why they shouldn’t)

Justin Dunk’s report that the CFL is considering lowering the Canadian ratio from seven starters to five has caused quite a stir since it dropped on Saturday.

CFLPA president Brian Ramsay released a statement criticizing Dunk’s piece, though he didn’t deny any of its contents. Ramsay also failed to reiterate that national talent is vital to the success of the CFL or speak in support of his union’s national membership.

Players began hotly debating the ratio on social media, while Scott Flory, Rick Campbell, and Brendan Taman offered their thoughts as well.

A number of columnists also wrote about the issue. Darrell Davis wrote a piece for 3Down detailing why reducing the ratio is a bad idea, while Jamie Nye and Rob Vanstone wrote pieces in agreement.

And here’s mine.

I didn’t want to write this piece. I’m less than 48 hours out from leaving for the CFL combine in Toronto, an event that I’ve been looking forward to for months. That’s where I’d like my focus to be.

But I have to address the proposed changes to the ratio. If the CFL doesn’t care about national players already in the league, why would it care about the players of tomorrow?

There is still time to prevent the CFL from making a colossal mistake if enough people hold the feet of the CFL and CFLPA to the fire.

So here it is.

It’s perfectly understandable that many CFL personnel people want the ratio reduced. The ratio, by nature, makes their jobs more difficult.

Some people believe that Canadian players aren’t good enough to play professional football. That’s a lie, but it’s true that national players often need longer to develop than their international counterparts.

The talent pool in the United States is huge. For every Canadian kid coming out of university there are a handful of Americans with NFL experience looking for work. And, provided you can convince them to come to Canada, these players can fill CFL starting jobs pretty seamlessly.

Let’s get hypothetical for a moment.

You are the general manager of a CFL team that’s in need of a defensive tackle.

There is an American free agent who is willing to sign with your club for the league’s minimum salary. He is 27 years old, was a three-year starter at an NCAA Division I school, and has two years of NFL experience. On a rating scale from one to ten, you figure he’s about a seven.

Then the draft comes along. Using the same rating scale, there aren’t any defensive tackles you’d rate higher than a five. Some prospects are great athletes but lack technique; developing that will take time. Others are fine technicians but don’t put up very good testing numbers; can an underwhelming athlete compete at the professional level?

Some prospects started 40-plus games in USports or the NCAA. Others appeared in close to 25 contests but rarely started. Others barely played at all due to injury, transfers or legal problems.

This is the type of scenario that CFL personnel people face every year and it illustrates why reducing the ratio makes sense for teams. It makes life easier for scouts and coaches. It allows them to not work as hard.

At the risk of sounding flippant, it allows them to be lazy.

Reducing the ratio is also a no-brainer for American players. More jobs means increased opportunity for international players to earn paychecks, which is especially appealing with the CFL set to raise its minimum salary.

Here’s the thing about the ratio, though: it dictates that you, as a hypothetical general manager, will draft one of those defensive tackles. Maybe he’s a good athlete who needs coaching. Maybe he’s a good technician who needs to hit the gym.

But you draft him because you need him, just as every team needs Canadians. The player gets an opportunity to participate in your training camp and potentially earn his way onto a roster.

Allow us to continue with our hypothetical scenario.

Let’s say the defensive tackle you draft ends up spending most of his rookie season on the practice roster. He works hard in the gym, doing everything the strength and conditioning coach asks of him. He watches film, takes notes in meetings, and listens to veteran players when they offer advice.

The player ends up getting on the 46-man roster late in the season due to injury, seeing a little bit of game action. He doesn’t light the world on fire, but he’s clearly improved since he was drafted six months ago.

The player comes back for his second year and has improved his rating from five to six. He makes the team out of training camp, albeit in a back-up role. He ends up starting a few games late in the year and records his first career sack.

The player ends up playing in the CFL for nine seasons with three different teams. While never an all-star, the player ends up starting more than 60 games and makes more than his fair share of plays. Depending on who you ask, the player reached or surpassed a rating of seven during the prime seasons of his career.

This is why reducing the ratio is an awful idea. Plugging and playing American talent will always be easier than drafting and developing Canadians. Period.

Americans (on average) will enter the pros with more experience and better coaching than their Canadian counterparts. They outnumber Canadians ten-to-one. Without the ratio, national talent will never be developed to its fullest potential.

This is also why people who argue that the CFL should “just play the best players” are misguided. Do you play the players who are better today or the players who will be better tomorrow? It’s all about development.

This is also why changing the league’s ratio would be bad for the sport of football in Canada. It would be bad for our players, our fans, and our country.

Fans already know this.

Former CFL player Troy Westwood ran a poll on Monday asking if fans cared about protecting the Canadian ratio. 73 percent of the 1,994 respondents voted “yes.”

Popular twitter account CFL_News is currently conducting a similar poll that will end on Tuesday, March 26. The results are virtually identical, minus the inclusion of a third option.

At the time of this writing, 24 percent of the 607 respondents have voted in favour of lowering the Canadian ratio. 61 percent have voted in favour of keeping the ratio the same, while 15 percent have voted in favour of increasing the ratio.

Fans don’t want to see the ratio reduced. That much is clear.

Not every Canadian player will develop into a future starter. Many will see their career peter out due to a lack of talent, hard work, coaching, conditioning or opportunity.

But that hardly makes the CFL unique. Every league has busts and every league has issues developing young talent. The NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB have all seen top prospects flounder and unheralded prospects succeed.

The ratio isn’t about giving undeserving Canadians starting jobs — it’s about giving them a chance to develop and succeed.

The two most recent finalists for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian award would never have received the opportunity to play had it not been for the ratio.

Brad Sinopoli was a quarterback at the University of Ottawa who was moved to receiver two years after joining the Calgary Stampeders. There were dozens (and possibly hundreds) of American free agents that teams would have chosen to sign over Sinopoli had it not been for the ratio. Six years later, Sinopoli is a three-time all-star and four-time 1,000-yard receiver.

Andrew Harris came up in the Canadian Junior Football League with the Vancouver Island Raiders. American running backs are a dime a dozen — Harris never would have been given a chance to play with the B.C. Lions had it not been for the ratio. Now a star with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Harris is a five-time all-star with 7,658 career rushing yards.

Opportunity. That’s what it’s all about.

The most concerning part of the ratio’s possible reduction is the precedent it will set moving forward.

The ratio was last dropped in 1996 when the league reduced the number of Canadian starters from ten to seven.

Anyone who follows USports football knows that the game is stronger than ever. There are also well over 150 Canadian players playing in the NCAA, many of whom could one day play in the CFL. If there’s not enough national talent to go around now, there never will be.

National player development will decrease if the ratio is reduced. Less development means less quality players, which will inevitably lead to further discussion about reducing the ratio.

It’s a vicious cycle.

If the CFL and CFLPA want to reduce the ratio from seven to five as part of its next CBA, it’s possible that we’ll see a further decrease in the next five-to-ten years. Why stop at five? Three national starters is enough. Then two. Then one…

National talent that’s left undeveloped will lose out to international talent every time. The CFL will suffer if it becomes a league dominated by NFL castoffs without the possibility of USports graduates and Canadian NCAA products earning the opportunity to play at the pro level.

American players are an important part of the CFL and its success. The league isn’t complete without players from the United States, many of whom positively impact their communities while playing in Canada.

But a CFL that doesn’t seek to enrich the development of Canadian talent is a misguided CFL. A short-sighted CFL. A reduced CFL.

Leave the ratio alone. Don’t fix what’s not broken.

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