Top 10 CFL feuds: Michael Lysko vs the Board of Governors

Last Monday, I unveiled my latest project for 3DownNation, a list of the top ten feuds in CFL history. Today, we have reached the podium finishers in the quest to discover the nastiest fights in the history of the league.

Check out our previous posts below:

The Best of the Rest

Number Ten: Adam Rita vs Jeff Reinebold

Number Nine: Dieter Brock vs the City of Winnipeg

Number Eight: Tyrone Jones vs Cal Murphy

Number Seven: Dave Chaytors vs Doug Flutie

Number Six: Ed Harrington vs Sonny Wade

Number Five: Cookie Gilchrist vs the CFL Establishment

Number Four: Eric Tillman vs Don Matthews

We continue today with the third worst CFL feud of all-time.

Number Three: Michael Lysko vs the Board of Governors

It’s only fitting that in a list inspired by modern day animosity towards Randy Ambrosie, a feud headlined by a commissioner makes the podium.

We like to think of the CFL commissioner as all powerful. He’s praised for league successes and admonished for every failure. He is the public face of the entire organization, but ultimately he is also an employee. It is really the board of governors, the owners, who have the power and when relationships sour with the league office it can be dirty, public, and toxic.

As former Calgary owner Sig Gutsche said, “look at the egos you’re dealing with.”

In November of 2000, the CFL shook things up when they hired confident marketing guru Michael Lysko as the new commissioner to reinvigorate the league’s image. He was frank and refreshing, a shot in the arm for league public relations. He wasn’t a lame duck commissioner either, as he was integral to adding the expansion Renegades, selling the Stampeders for a record profit and significantly reducing debt to the NFL. None of that would help him once he bit the hand that fed him.

The relationship between the commissioner and his bosses got off to a rocky start even before he stepped foot in the head office, with inquiries from members of the board to his previous employer and leaks to the press souring Lysko’s previous business relationships.

Then there was the financial situation of the league, which Lysko would later claim was wildly misrepresented in the hiring process to the point where he would not have taken the job if he had known the realities. He stated publicly that former commissioner John Tory and chief operating officer Jeff Giles had left behind some “funny files” and had to ruffle feathers by coming down hard on the financial side of operations.

It was clear from the very start that Lysko wasn’t going to be pushed around and planned to keep the teams on a tight leash. He also wasn’t going to shy away from talking to the press.

The controversies started in earnest once his first season got underway. First, he had to step in and ban the Argonauts from hosting a wet t-shirt contest for local strippers as a marketing gimmick, something which rankled owner Sherwood Schwartz but had few opponents elsewhere. That can be considered a lewd and funny side note to this feud, as real tragedy was about to bring Lysko in direct opposition of his employers.

September 11, 2001 is a day that will forever be remembered as a turning point in world history. As a result of the attack, every North American sports league canceled its games. That was, of course, except for the CFL. The board of governors met and voted to continue play in a show of strength. In reality, costs were motivating the decision.

Lysko wasn’t about to let the league be a social pariah for the sake of a few dollars and postponed the games through a unilateral decision. It was the right call but was immediately met with backlash.

Winnipeg and Calgary were particularly outraged. Stampeders owner Sid Gutsche called Lysko a “rogue commissioner.”

“While I commend him for having the guts to stand up against us and do what he thinks is right, I’m afraid I still have to take a corporate line and say that we own the league,” he told reporters. “We own the franchises and, quite frankly, we are the governors and have to see to it that our duties are executed in the best fashion that we can.”

“The league office needs to be reminded who it works for,” Bombers chairman David Asper chimed in.

Silent but also upset was Lions owner David Braley, whose team had to play three games in eight days due to rescheduling.

Lysko stood his ground and was vindicated by public opinion. The governors met and finally let the issue pass in the interest of league unity, with bad blood now lurking beneath the surface.

Over the course of that season, Lysko’s financial decisions also began to upset the governors. He took a hard stance on the CFL salary cap and Braley was apparently upset that he was not allowed to break it without penalty. Then there was the issue of league dispersal money. Lysko spent a million dollars of it to pay off a significant portion of the league’s pending debt to the NFL from the 90s. That was money that the teams felt they were entitled to.

Lysko wasn’t doing all this silently either. At the Grey Cup, the commissioner openly criticized the Lions and Argos for their poor marketing, while saying that Toronto’s planned move to Lamport Stadium from the Sky Dome was “not a viable option” from his perspective. Then, in March, Lysko went off on the cash-strapped Argos.

“We apologize from the time we get up until the time we go to bed for these guys,” he said “I can’t defend stupidity. You can’t legislate good judgement.”

The comments came after Sherwood Schwartz struck a marketing deal with theatre promoter Garth Drabinsky, a man embroiled in significant fraud lawsuits and facing criminal cases in both the U.S. and Canada.

“Sherwood, for whatever reason, has cut a deal with the devil,” Lysko emphasized.

He would go on to point out that the Argos financial issues were self-generated and made worse by organizational greed.

“Their version of league assistance is us giving them money and their version of co-operation with other clubs is having the other clubs give them money,” Lysko explained. “Well, there’s zero appetite for that.”

Schwartz was already no fan of how the commissioner had treated his club, but now he was absolutely livid.

“I think that Mike Lysko is a cancer to this league and we’ve got to get rid of him. We can’t have him around,” he responded to the comments publicly. “He is not commissioner material. The commissioner has to have unquestioned integrity and he doesn’t have that.”

Lysko initially tried to say he was misquoted or that the comments were supposed to be off the record, but the cat was out of the bag. He tried to paint himself as a defender of the league in the face of disparaging comments from Drabinsky, who had said the league had a problem attracting younger fans.

“When someone like Garth Drabinsky is making pronouncements that fly in the face of fact when we have a generally positive trending property and our demographics are impressive, of course I have a problem with that,” Lysko explained.

“Did I respond in the most appropriate manner? Obviously not. [My comments] were the cumulative frustration of dealing with Garth Drabinsky the last few months, but I will not have anyone attacking the momentum of this league.”

Schwartz wasn’t about to stand down on his call to fire Lysko and he had the support of many of the other owners that Lysko had angered that season.

“It’s unfortunate that a person who lives off the CFL and has no equity in it can make an attack on this organization,” he told reporters.

The board of governors met and deliberated over the course of a week. Lysko had some support. Alouettes owner Robert Wetenhall was a friend. Edmonton’s Hugh Campbell tried to be a voice of reason. Brand new Stampeder’s owner Michael Feterik spearheaded an attempted reconciliation. Ultimately, the hatred of the other members of the board towards Lysko was untenable and at least four clubs were entirely focused on his dismissal. There was no point to sew division by backing Lysko, the final vote was unanimous.

“It was difficult to move forward given the aggravation between the governors and the commissioner,” board chair and soon-to-be interim commissioner David Braley said.

On March 19, 2002, Braley informed Lysko he had been fired just 15 months into a three-year contract. He was the first CFL commissioner to ever be fired from his post.

The league would pay out the remaining duration of Lysko’s contract but the disgruntled former commissioner wanted more and felt he had been severely wronged by the league, despite improving its prospects during his tenure.

“In essence, the governors really tried to brush my whole existence under the rug, forgetting of course that I inherited the mess, and I’m the one who put them on the track they’re on now,” he later said.

Lysko decided to get what he was owed through civil court and launched a massive lawsuit against 25 different defendants, including the CFL, the members of the board of governors, several team presidents, and John Tory. In total, he was seeking upwards of $19 million in damages for charges ranging from breach of confidence during his initial hiring to negligent misrepresentation of league finances to defamation, including suing Bombers president Lyle Bauer for comparing him to Lord Voldemort.

The suit was dismissed by an Ontario judge for being “monstrous and unwieldy” and, while that decision was overturned on appeal in 2006, I could find no evidence of it proceeding past that stage. Had it been successful, Lysko could well have crippled the league financially.

This feud is a look into the inner workings of the upper echelon of the CFL, where money, egos and politics make many relationships contentious. The role of commissioner keeps much of that behind closed doors, but his subservience is key to the happiness of his bosses. When those unwritten rules are broken, the dirty laundry comes spilling out from behind the curtain.

Lysko’s story is a timely reminder of where the power really lies in the CFL. As we move forward through uncertain times, Ambrosie is more than deserving of criticism, but our singular focus may let the true decision-makers off unscathed. Lysko will forever be a reminder of what happens when a commissioner decides to go off-script.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.