I will confess, here, to being something of a Randy Ambrosie skeptic at first.
When he was announced as the new Canadian Football League commissioner in July, after a lengthy search and amid rumours that the board of governors was shooting for a splashy big-name hire, it felt like a fallback position. Yes, Ambrosie had experience in leadership roles in Toronto’s financial services sector, but the most notable thing about the former offensive lineman was that he was an unabashed lover of the CFL. And, at his introductory press conference in Toronto, Ambrosie said his immediate plans amounted to a listening tour.
It was nice that the league had found someone who cared for it deeply, but given the CFL’s many challenges — more on those in a bit — the new commissioner was not exactly barrelling in with big plans for change.
But from that understated beginning, Ambrosie has quickly assembled an impressive body of work. The listening phase was brief, and in the weeks since the new guy has been a whirlwind of action. The big challenges remain, but Ambrosie is quite plainly not going to be the kind of commissioner who sits idly while problems overtake him.
The first indication that things were different came about a month into the job, when the CFL abruptly announced that it was changing the league’s replay-review policy. The previous system, where coaches had two replay challenges, with potential for a third if they won the first two, was replaced with a one-challenge-only rule.
Replay reviews have become a plague across almost all sports, and Ambrosie said his early feedback from fans was that they hated the system. Too many stoppages, and too many challenges that the coach didn’t expect to win but, hey, free challenge. So, he changed it. Just like that, in the middle of the season. A commissioner responding to the concerns of his fans? What madness is this?
This is exactly the kind of thing the CFL should be doing. Where the bigger pro leagues are forever tied up in knots about this or that rule change, and any change must go through layers of committees before implementation, the CFL has the advantage of being small and nimble. Why not act fast? The National Hockey League has been vowing to reduce the size of goalie equipment since Justin Trudeau was just a floppy-haired schoolteacher, and yet goalies are still out there wearing the equivalent of those sumo fat suits under their jerseys. (There’s also been plenty of condemnation of the NHL’s offside replay reviews, so expect that to be addressed by 2025.)
Ambrosie’s willingness to lead with his head was next on display with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ amazingly dim hiring of former Baylor football coach Art Briles. The news was announced in a press release on a Monday morning, and the Ticats front office that afternoon was defending the move to hire someone who had been fired last year amid a huge sexual-assault scandal. But Ambrosie went to Hamilton while the league’s public-relations team was in relative lockdown. By Monday evening, Briles was unhired, and by the following day, various members of Ticats management were praising Ambrosie for saving them from themselves. How to Kill a Scandal in 12 Hours, by Randy Ambrosie.
The commissioner has scored some easy wins, too, with the Diversity is Strength marketing campaign quickly unveiled in response to the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., and his move this week to tacitly endorse the right of CFL players to peacefully protest. Referring to actions that took place during the national anthem, a statement from Ambrosie said, “We would absolutely respect our players’ rights to express their views this way, which is peaceful and does not disrupt our game in any way.” Many fans will disagree, but Ambrosie was at least getting out ahead of the issue.
In his most unexpected move — another mid-season change, this one eliminating contact during all practices — Ambrosie doesn’t have such an obvious victory. Taking action to limit injuries is laudable, but the question that looms over football is not whether players are getting a little too dinged up, it’s whether they can play for any length of time without putting themselves at serious risk of brain damage. Admittedly, the commissioner was never going to sort that out in his first two months on the job, so something is better than nothing.
In a conversation last week, Ambrosie said that part of the reason he had seemed so busy was that he was happy to let staff do the regular business of running the league. He was jumping in on the items that required urgency. This makes a lot of sense; there are certainly many leaders who come in thinking they know everything and quickly prove otherwise. (Casts eyes toward the White House.)
There will be other CFL fires that need dousing, plus the smouldering problems: the hilarious West-East power imbalance, and the attendance issues in Toronto, where the CFL renaissance remains on hold. Those things will take some serious work to solve. But we can say this for Ambrosie, on the evidence of his first three months: he’s going to try.
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