The CFL has a number of uniquely Canadian characteristics: three downs, the rouge, wider field, 12 men per team (13 if in you’re in Regina) and a lack of fair catches, to name a few.
But one of the generally unspoken features of the Canadian game is that when it comes to fans cheering on their favourite players, as much as supporters want them to succeed and make big plays for their team, they actually don’t want them to do ‘too’ well.
If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is.
In what other league would a fan be worried about their team’s stars shining ‘too’ brightly? Not in the NHL — unless you cheer for the Senators because that ensures Eugene Melynk won’t be dishing out a second contract — and certainly not in the NFL or NBA. Perhaps in some soccer leagues there is the fear of a star being poached by a team in a bigger league, but at the end of the day contracts still do matter.
Meanwhile in the CFL, as much as a fan favourite making impactful plays is exciting, it can also lead to worry.
As R-Nation watched electric return man DeVonte Dedmon break Hall of Famer Gizmo Williams’ record as the fastest player to score five career return touchdowns, needing 15 games to accomplish the feat compared to Williams’ 18, in the back of their minds many fans were wondering: ‘What if NFL teams are watching?’
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On one hand, fans should never begrudge players for wanting to maximize their earnings. Regardless of what field a person works in, people deserve opportunities to rise to the top of the pay scale in their respective area. Doubly so when the work involves violent collisions where any given play could end a career.
And yet on the other hand, as the Dedmon situation with the Ottawa Redblacks reminds us, fan bases can wind up feeling cheated.
Dedmon, a 2021 league all-star and the CFL’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player, was set to become a free agent until he signed a one-year contract extension with the Redblacks on November 2. Less than a month later, he was trying out for NFL teams thanks to the three-down league’s NFL window. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a fan base that has put up with some pretty poor football in recent seasons.
As my colleague John Hodge explains, any CFL player — regardless of their actual contract — is eligible to use the NFL window. This year the window opened Dec. 13, 2021 and closes on Feb. 8, 2022.
CFL fans should not be against the NFL window, yet it does create an odd situation for those cheering in the stands. As much as you want your players, especially the Americans, to excel, there’s almost an imaginary line in the sand you don’t want them to cross, in case they become the next Dedmon or Diontae Spencer.
The NFL only poaches a handful of players from the CFL each off-season, but those who depart are always top tier talent. Even if that exodus leads to opportunities for other players to step up and showcase their talents, it does speak to a larger issue plaguing the CFL: ‘How are fans supposed to become attached to players?’
The average cost of a customized CFL jersey with nameplate is roughly $200. Why would anyone plunk down that much hard earned cash for the jersey of a player who is only an off-season away from leaving, even if their contract suggests otherwise?
Sports fans have long known the perils of cheering for the name on the back of the jersey as opposed to the one on the front, but that risk is amplified in the CFL.
It becomes even more paradoxical when you consider that in terms of player access, no league allows fans more direct contact with its stars than the CFL. Whether it’s legends at luncheons, all-stars crashing Grey Cup parties, Quarterback Clubs, charity events or after practice chats, CFL players have repeatedly proven to be more approachable than pro athletes in other leagues.
In theory, that should help foster connections and jersey sales but yet when contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re written on and players are only a phone call, email or text away from a tryout south of the border, that bond can be hard to develop and foster.
Such is life for CFL fans.