CFL preaches player safety while dodging question of whether football can ever truly be made safe

TORONTO — When Randy Ambrosie was introduced in early July as the new commissioner of the Canadian Football League, he was quickly asked the concussion question: did he think there was a link between football and the brain disease CTE?

Although Ambrosie was an offensive lineman in his playing days, on this question, he punted.

“I don’t think it would take a lot for me to convince many of you that I’m not a doctor nor a scientist,” Ambrosie said. “There are parts of that question, for a layperson, that it would be impossible to answer.”

Ambrosie went on to say that in his early discussions with team executives and officials — he had, after all, just been hired — he was aware of “how deeply and passionately they feel about player safety” and that the important thing was “making sure we do everything possible to make this game as safe as we can.”

Neatly avoided in this response is the question of whether the game can truly be made safe at all.

In the few weeks since Ambrosie took the job atop the CFL, evidence has continued to tumble forth about the risks associated with playing football. On a small scale, a Toronto hospital that studied the brain of former CFL player Rick Klassen found that it showed signs of CTE, and also signs of a form of dementia. And on a much larger scale, a Boston University study of the brains of former football players detected defining features of CTE in an overwhelming number of subjects: 99 per cent of players with National Football League experience; 87 per cent of a much smaller subgroup of former CFL players.

Neither of those developments were necessarily unexpected. In the case of Klassen, he had shown symptoms associated with CTE — anger, irritability — in the years before his cancer-related death in 2016. It is very often the case that when someone suspects they have CTE while alive, a post-mortem examination of their brain confirms the suspicion. (This is, notably, not always the case.) And with respect to the large Boston University study of more than 200 brains, the findings were in line with previous studies of brains after death, which tend to discover a prevalence of CTE pathology in at least 95 per cent of the brains of former NFL players.

After the study was released, the CFL said in a statement many questions “remain unanswered” and player health safety remains an “important priority.”

Huge parts of the CTE puzzle do remain unsolved. How does the rate of CTE characteristics in the brains of former football players compare with the rate in the wider population? And how many of those people, football-playing or otherwise, with the telltale CTE proteins in their brains, outwardly suffer from the symptoms like depression, memory loss and anger that have been seen in so many high-profile cases, like Mike Webster and Junior Seau? Put another way, is there a population of people whose brains show signs of CTE but who do not seem particularly harmed by it? Because post-mortem tests are the only avenue available, researchers have no means to compare the football-playing group with a control group.

That Boston University study acknowledged these limitations, saying its findings, headline-grabbing though they were, should not be used for an “estimation of the risk of participation in football and neuropathological outcomes.”

Still, the risk is not close to zero. Baltimore Ravens lineman John Urschel, who happens to be pursuing a doctorate in mathematics at MIT, retired last week and said the new study was a factor in his decision. Former NFL player Dominique Foxworth, who was also the president of the NFLPA, said he would not let his young son play football. The benefits — lessons about teamwork and work ethic — no longer outweighed the risks, he said. His kid could get those lessons from soccer or basketball, Foxworth said.

That’s the discussion that will continue to evolve about football. Lost somewhat in what we do or don’t know about CTE is that there is very little uncertainty about the links between football and brain trauma. The longer someone plays the former, the greater their exposure to the latter, full stop. The NFL’s own research says about a third of former players will develop dementia or Alzheimer’s, which is double the risk of the normal population.

But much of this has been known for years, too. Urschel is not the first professional player to retire early to protect his brain, but the Ravens will have no problem filling his roster spot. The CFL has similarly marched on, even though it doesn’t offer nearly the potential wealth nor fame to its players as the league across the border. The allure of a professional career, for a great many players, still remains worth the associated risk.

It’s fair to wonder how long that will last. Fifty years ago, more than 40 per cent of adults in Canada were smokers. That number is close to 15 per cent now. There wasn’t a massive dip or demarcation point, just a steady decline. That could be football’s path.

In March of last year, when the NFL acknowledged a link between the sport and CTE, there were headlines that the “Game May Never Be the Same.” It has since remained pretty much the same. But a generation or two from now? That is far less certain.


The latest example of the fine work done by the CFL’s rouge is the final score of Saturday’s Calgary-Hamilton matchup: 60-1. A 60-0 score would be just sad, but 60-1 elevates it to dark comedy.

Also enjoyable was the perfect symmetry buried in the box score of what was the third-worst blowout in CFL history. The Stamps’ Bo Levi Mitchell completed 11 passes for a touchdown with no interceptions before he was taken out of the game, one assumes, under the league’s mercy rule. Andrew Buckley came in and completed 10 passes, also with one touchdown and no interceptions.

For Hamilton, Zach Collaros was pulled after going 14-for-21 for just 102 yards and an interception with no touchdowns. His replacement, Jeremiah Masoli, came in to go 7-for-15 for just 77 yards and an interception with no touchdowns. Each Hamilton quarterback also had a longest completed pass on the day that went for 21 yards.

Hamilton owner Bob Young told the Hamilton Spectator that despite his team’s 0-5 record, major changes were not imminent.


Six weeks into the CFL season, the league’s West-East power imbalance does not appear to have balanced out at all. Where four of five West teams finished above .500 in 2016 and just the Saskatchewan Roughriders did not, so far this year there are four West teams that have won more than they have lost, with Saskatchewan being the lone exception.

And where the Ottawa Redblacks won the East in 2016 with an 8-9-1 record, this year the Toronto Argonauts are leading at 3-3. The Argos are 3-0 against their own division and 0-3 against the West. The Montreal Alouettes’ 17-16 win at home against Saskatchewan to open the CFL season remains the only time an East team has beaten a West team this year.

If there is any consolation to the East, it’s that the same trends were evident in 2016, before Ottawa went on to win the Grey Cup.


After the Argos’ attendance woes reached a crisis point with a crowd of a little over 11,000 to see their Week 2 game against the B.C. Lions, management made a spectacle of their next home game in Week 5 against Ottawa. It was Doug Flutie bobblehead night, with members of their 1996-97 Grey Cup team in attendance, and two tickets in part of the upper bowl could be purchased for $19.97. Attendance ticked upward to just short of 16,000, still well short of a sellout at BMO Field, but moving in the right direction.

That trend will be tested on Thursday, when Calgary visits Toronto. The weeknight game comes just five days after their Week 6 road loss, and the Toronto market is notoriously unaware of their team’s schedule even when the games are properly spread out. With two days to go, it was possible to buy two seats next to each other in 41 of the 42 sections at the stadium.


The St. Louis Cardinals were criticized this week for denying a press credential to Outsports, a site that covers sports with a focus on LGBTQ issues, but at least one CFL team is going in the opposite direction. The Alouettes will “co-present” their Aug. 11 game with Canada Pride, an LGBTQ festival that runs next month in Montreal.

The Als, briefly the CFL home of openly gay player Michael Sam, will wear the rainbow flag on their helmets for the game against the Argonauts, and again for the rematch in Toronto the following week. The team will also give $5 for every ticket sold to Equipe Montreal, which represents LGBTQ organizations in the province.


Power Rankings

*Last week’s rankings are in brackets


The Eskimos (5-0) are an easy choice for top spot, considering they’re the CFL’s only undefeated team. Edmonton is also coming off a 37-26 home-field victory last Friday over B.C., which had won four consecutive games. Quarterback Mike Reilly has established a nice rapport with receiver Brandon Zylstra.

2 (3). CALGARY

The Stampeders eviscerated Hamilton 60-1 on Saturday, raising the question: How did the Tiger-Cats manage a rouge? Perhaps they overachieved. As the season evolves, watch for some compelling Edmonton-Calgary games. The Alberta rivalry could reach another tier.

3 (2). B.C.

The Lions’ offence has fared well despite the absence of quarterback Jonathon Jennings, who has missed the better part of the past three games. Travis Lulay had back-to-back games with 400-plus passing yards before running into the Eskimos’ defence. Despite that setback, the Lions are in the top third of the league, with a considerable drop-off thereafter.

 4 (5). WINNIPEG

The Blue Bombers’ last two games have been CFL classics. On July 21, Winnipeg coughed up a 42-25 fourth-quarter lead and lost 45-42 to B.C. Winnipeg appeared poised for a second successive loss before staging a remarkable comeback against Montreal on Thursday. The Bombers overcame a 12-point deficit in the final two minutes and won 41-40.


The Roughriders move way up in the rankings at the expense of Toronto, which fell 38-27 in Regina on Saturday. Once again, the CFL looks like a two-tiered league — first the West, then the East — and the power rankings reflect that. Saskatchewan now faces the formidable task of cracking the top four.

6 (4). TORONTO

And now for the East Division. The Argonauts descend two spots after being one of the few teams to lose to Saskatchewan since mid-September of 2014. Toronto’s Ricky Ray-led offence is piling up the passing yards, but the Argos’ defence took a few steps in reverse Saturday while allowing Kevin Glenn to throw four touchdown passes and Cameron Marshall to rush for 110 yards.

7 (7). OTTAWA

The defending Grey Cup champions enjoyed a respite after playing three games in a span of 11 days, and four times within 17 days. Ottawa has scored more points (164) than anyone in the East, not that the explosiveness has significantly influenced the Redblacks’ record (1-4-1). Ottawa’s Trevor Harris has a league-high 12 touchdown passes.


The Alouettes are a puzzle. They raised eyebrows by knocking off Calgary 30-23 on July 14, only to lose the following two games — the most recent of which featured one of the league’s all-time collapses. Quarterback Darian Durant is becoming more comfortable with the Alouettes’ offence, although early-game interceptions are an issue.


Stampeders 60, Tiger-Cats 1. What more needs to be written? Compared to Hamilton, the Donald Trump administration is a smooth-running operation. It is difficult to believe a Kent Austin-coached team could become the CFL’s free space. Believe it or not, it could get worse for the shabby Tabbies. Next stop: Edmonton. Gulp.

Rob Vanstone


Week 7 Picks

Calgary (-4) at Toronto

The Stampeders lit up the Tiger-Cats for 60 points and will now face a Toronto team that was sliced and diced by Saskatchewan’s offence on Saturday. The Roughriders’ Kevin Glenn shredded the Argonauts’ secondary, throwing four touchdown passes. Toronto was also vulnerable to the run. Now, the Argos get to face Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the league’s reigning most outstanding player, and the array of weapons at his disposal — including tailback Jerome Messam. Stampeders by seven.

Winnipeg (+2.5) at Ottawa

Watch for a pile of points. The Redblacks love to fire the football all over the place. Quarterback Trevor Harris and receiver Greg Ellingson are a lethal combination.

Although the Bombers aren’t as likely to air it out, they have had games of 41, 42 and 43 points this season. How about 44 on Friday? It could happen for Winnipeg, or to Winnipeg. It is still difficult to get a handle on the Bombers. Winnipeg head coach/special-teams guru Mike O’Shea has absorbed some heat for his tactical moves, but the design of a successful onside kick against Montreal has elicited widespread plaudits. In West versus East, go with the former. Bombers by two.

FRIDAY, 9:30 P.M. ET
Hamilton (+14) at Edmonton

The turning point of this game could be “we stand on guard for thee.” Coming off a 60-1 loss in Calgary, the Tiger-Cats are now preparing to face the CFL’s lone undefeated team. The CRTC should mandate a warning at the outset of TSN’s telecast, because this game could border on the inhumane. Congratulations if you have Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly in a CFL fantasy league. The Tiger-Cats keeping this one close? That, too, is the stuff of fantasy. Eskimos by 30 … 40 … 50, anyone?

Saskatchewan (+5.5) at B.C.

The Roughriders will travel to Vancouver in the hopes of registering a West Division road victory for the first time since Sept. 7, 2014. Saturday’s game will be an immense test for the Chris Jones-coached Roughriders, who are still waiting for that ever-elusive breakthrough. The Roughriders are an improved team, but the wait for a statement game will continue at least another week. Lions by six.

Last week: 3-1
Overall: 14-7

Rob Vanstone

Original source article: CFL preaches player safety while dodging question of whether football can ever truly be made safe

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