'It's time to say football is not a safe sport': CFL great challenges commissioner on concussions

In his first address as CFL commissioner, Randy Ambrosie said there is not enough evidence to link head injuries and brain disease. But the CFL's all-time receptions leader Nik Lewis isn't buying it, and questioned the league boss on the issue.

All-time receptions leader Nik Lewis challenges Randy Ambrosie on brain health

In his first address as CFL commissioner, Randy Ambrosie said there is not enough evidence to link head injuries and brain disease. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

OTTAWA — In his first address as Canadian Football League commissioner, Randy Ambrosie tried to get ahead of the question he called "the elephant in the room."

Is there a link between football head injuries and brain disease? The NFL has conceded there is a link, but the CFL has not followed suit.

The question dominated the commissioner's state of the league address on Friday.

"I can simply say this," Ambrosie said. "We're continuing to look at all of it but right now I think the answer is we don't know yet. There is not conclusive evidence. The science is still unclear."

He added: "Leading neuroscientists in the world, doctors of great reputation met in Berlin, they meet in a cycle, and their report says it's inconclusive. They don't know. Effectively they're saying they don't know."

Those comments echo last year's address, when Jeffrey Orridge, who stepped down as commissioner before this season, was heavily criticized for saying essentially the same thing.

"The league's position is that there is no conclusive evidence at this point," Orridge told reporters during Grey Cup week last year in Toronto. 

The CFL is facing a $200-million class-action lawsuit over concussions and brain trauma.

In his first address as CFL commissioner, Randy Ambrosie said the league's position is that there is no conclusive evidence to link head injuries to brain disease 5:12

Commissioner questioned

All-time CFL receptions leader Nik Lewis was at the media event Friday to question Ambrosie about his stance on concussions. Lewis is an accredited member of the media for Grey Cup week working for the CFL blog 3DownNation.

Lewis took the microphone and asked his question.

"I believe we talk about the word concussion way too much and not about brain health," he said. "When will we stop selling safe when we know there's nothing we can do to make the game safer?"

"It's a great question, Nik," responded Ambrosie. "I'm happy to say you've been in this game and have a distinction few others will have in their lifetimes. Your career almost stands above all."

Ambrosie went on to talk about the steps the CFL is taking to make certain player safety is paramount. After the exchange, CBC Sports talked to Lewis about why it was important to have his voice heard.

"My thing is opening the conversation and getting a dialogue with how we want to view the game," he said. "They sell it as being safe. I think it's time to say football is not a safe sport."

Lewis, who has 14 years in the CFL under his belt, said he'd like the league to work with neuroclinics and "educate the players about the rehab of the brain."

Lewis believes the CFL is asking the wrong questions when it comes to the issue of brain disease and football.

"While there's no link between the four major brain diseases and concussions there is a link between the four major brain diseases and brain damage."

Lewis said he wants to be part of the solution in educating players about the dangers of brain injuries.

"As a player, I feel like I'm in the Roman Colosseum and when you go there and you're a gladiator, you don't go in saying this is going to be safe.

"And we have to start selling the rehab of the brain and the education that allows you to play it but at the same rate get that function back and know you can play it for 25 years like I've done and still know you'll be OK."

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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