‘They’ve dug their heels in the sand’: Riders HC Craig Dickenson doesn’t expect unvaccinated players to have a change of heart

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are back from their bye week refreshed and, most importantly, COVID-free, but the outbreak that sidelined the Edmonton Elks a week ago still weighs heavy on the minds of CFL decisionmakers and Riders head coach Craig Dickenson is no exception.

“What happened with Edmonton is unfortunate and honestly a real shot of cold water and a dose of reality for all of us,” he told the Regina media after his team returned to practice on Wednesday.

“We all know that could happen to any team in the league and we really want to emphasize to our guys to do the right things and try to limit their social circles and try to follow protocols as best they can. That was a shock to see, very unfortunate, and I certainly hope they can get that game rescheduled.”

That is something that the CFL is still working towards, after five positive COVID tests among Elks players and staff on Saturday, August 21 prompted the postponement of their Week 4 game with the Toronto Argonauts. The number of personnel that contracted the virus eventually rose to 13, with one additional player deemed a false positive.

Should the game not be able to be rescheduled, a cancellation would result in a forfeit by the Elks and no player getting paid as the team has not yet reached the league’s 85 percent vaccination threshold.

While Dickenson could not confirm a vaccination percentage for his team, he did note that the club is extremely close to reaching the CFL’s benchmark for protecting player income in the event of a cancellation. “Just a handful” of players have yet to be immunized according to the coach, but as teams learned from the Elks, that number might not be entirely accurate.

Edmonton’s starting left guard Jacob Ruby was released by the club and barred by the league from signing a new contract this season after it was revealed that he misrepresented his vaccination status in order to circumvent COVID protocols.

Initially Dickenson didn’t want to comment on how Ruby found himself on the league’s “naughty list,” but later admitted that his players have not yet had their vaccination status put to the test and verified either.

“We have just trusted them up until this point. I do believe we’re going to have to see proof of vaccination and our medical people will figure out what that is, whether it’s a card or a picture that shows you’ve been vaccinated, but we’ve been taking our guys at their word,” he acknowledged.

“We certainly hope they’re being honest with us. If there’s not honesty, it’s hard to work with people. I think that’s where you’re seeing the pushback on Jacob Ruby is the fact that he wasn’t honest and hopefully he’ll learn from this and do better in the future.”

While he’s hoping for honesty from unvaccinated players like Ruby, Dickenson is no longer holding out hope for a massive change of heart. Those on his team who haven’t got the vaccine are unlikely to do so and they have to be prepared for the consequences.

“At this point, they’ve dug their heels in the sand. Most of the guys that don’t want to get it, the logical arguments have all been made time and time again. I think the guys that refuse to get the vaccine are going to refuse no matter what,” Dickenson said.

That will soon effect those players in the pocket book, because if the Liberal party maintains their mandate with a victory in the upcoming federal election a ban on unvaccinated passengers on commercial flights and interprovincial trains is expected to come into effect in October.

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has stated the league is operating under “informed guidance” that charter flights won’t be exempt from the ban, meaning unvaccinated players will no longer be able to travel to road games. If they can’t play, they won’t get paid and a lack of availability is likely to put their employment status in jeopardy.

“Our approach is we encourage everybody to get vaccinated and if they don’t get vaccinated, then there’s a chance they may not play in games come later in the season when we’re traveling. If they’re not playing in games as a player, their value to the team is less,” Dickenson admitted.

“We’ll see what happens. I’m not that worried about it, because I feel like we’ve got good depth and I feel like we’ve got a good enough team that we’ll be fine even if we lose a guy here or there.”

Of course, players aren’t the only ones being affected by stricter vaccine enforcement as Canada heads into a fourth wave of the pandemic. Saskatchewan’s seven-day average of COVID infections has ballooned more than 345.6 percent since the club hosted their home opener, prompting the team to install a vaccination mandate for entrance into Mosaic Stadium starting September 17.

While met by applause from many, a vocal minority within Rider Nation was upset with the new policy. The leader of their favourite team couldn’t care less.

“I think the majority of people are in favor of vaccines — myself included — and if it’s a way to get the province closer to back to normal, if it’s a way to have safer environments for people to come out and enjoy a ball game, I’m all for it,” Dickenson said. “I’m happy they did it.”

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