CFL Commissioner continues to dream big — eyes expansion in near future
Randy Ambrosie speaks to CBC Sports about player safety, expansion and league future
Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie wraps up his second season at the end of Grey Cup week in Edmonton.
On Friday morning, he'll give the annual State of the League address.
CBC Sports reporter Devin Heroux sat down with Ambrosie Thursday in Edmonton and asked about a number of issues, ranging from player safety to expansion.
Here is an abridged transcription from that conversation:
CBC Sports: The concussion question and link between football and CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is brought up every year during the State of the League address. How are you going to tackle it this year?
Randy Ambrosie: I talked to some of the greatest doctors and neuroscientists in the world and they're telling me it's complicated. The brain is a complicated organ and there's so much about it that we don't know. I just came back from London where I went to a concussion conference that we cohosted with the NFL and what was fascinating is people from the equestrian world were there, we had soccer people there, we had hockey there, we had Australian Rules football and rugby there.
You realize we're not alone in this. This isn't just a football issue. This is a sports issue and there are almost four million concussions in North America every year. And the vast majority of some of those come from just people having falls. We're not alone with this. This isn't a football problem. This is a problem that we have to tackle as a society.
Watch Ambrosie discuss concussions in the CFL:
CBC Sports: How frustrating is the player safety debate for you, personally?
RA: I try not to think about it through the lens of frustration. I feel strongly about doing everything we can to make this game safe. I love this game. I love everything about it. I've got twisted fingers and I got sore knees and shoulders, but I also know just how much this game does for us as athletes. So we have to continue to work at it. I'm also so careful when I say this because it sometimes is interpreted as I think everything is perfect. I'm proud of some of the things that we've done on player safety taking out the padded practices, which was no easy feat. But we've now seen almost a 30 per cent reduction in the number of injuries during practices in the past season. What I hear from the fans is they want our best players playing and I think that's a step forward. But it by no means leads — and it should lead anyone — to the conclusion that I think the work is done. It's not.
CBC Sports: Should the Ottawa Redblacks' Jonathan Rose play on Sunday after being suspended for pushing the referee?
RA: I will let the ruling we made stands on its own. When you think about all sports, the sacred rule that we've all protected is you can't go after officials. You can't touch them, you can't hit them, you can't knock them down. And if we sacrifice that, if we sacrifice the moral high ground there, I think you have anarchy. And it's about a message to kids that this is part of sports that we can never let go of, that we have to protect the officials. I think we made the right decision and now we have to let the process work itself out.
CBC Sports: What update can you provide about expansion to the Maritimes?
RA: The Atlantic region is such a vibrant and important part of Canada. And when you have a chance to go out there, you see these people and they're so amazing, you think, "gosh, let's get them into this Canadian Football League." Imagine a Labour Day weekend where you get your classic Edmonton vs. Calgary battle, Saskatchewan vs. Winnipeg, Toronto playing Hamilton and Montreal playing Ottawa. Then we'd have the coast-to-coast Bowl.
Ambrosie talks expansion: 'now we'll be coast to coast':
CBC Sports: How close is this process to getting done?
RA: The entire thing is just a series of gates that we cross as we go through. We are on track as far as all the steps that are taken. I really want a franchise there. I want to get to the end of this. Some of these things are artificial markers and what I know is the Maritime Football Group is focused on the same thing the league is.
CBC Sports: There have been reports about the CFL playing games in Mexico next season. How did that evolve and where is it headed?
RA: It started really for me with a conversation we had with the board of governors about recognition that not all of our cities are the same. I think having a game in Mexico would be amazing if we could get it done. We're definitely focused on doing a scouting combine there.
You know at the heart of it, we've got to work with the players, so you know a big part of this exercise will be to work with the Players' Association to figure out a way to welcome international players into the Canadian Football League and make sure that we all understand the opportunity that's going to come with bringing some players here to play. What if we could create opportunities for Canadian players who weren't quite ready for the CFL to go out and play in the world.
Ambrosie on CFL games in Mexico: 'international sports are more attractive':
CBC Sports: How committed is the league to raising minimum salaries for players?
RA: The minimum salary [$54,000] issue is going to get dealt with during the negotiations with the players and one of the things I have committed to is that I'm not going to talk issue by issue around our negotiations with the players, because I don't want to do it that way. I want to go in a room and get behind closed doors and talk to each other as partners, talk about how we grow this game together and then take on issues like that and find a way to make things better for all the players. We want to get a deal that's fair for both the players and the teams in the league. I think we can do that and I believe issues like that will get solved along the way.
CBC Sports: How concerned are you about new leagues south of the border taking away players from the CFL?
RA: We've got a great game. There's something very special about coming here and playing. We've changed lives with people who have come here. We happen to be sitting at a very, very critical time in the history of the world, where being in Canada and part of the Canadian culture is a really good thing. I think that's a selling feature we're going to welcome players – we hope with the players endorsement and support — to bring players in around the world. We've made the pool of talent bigger, not smaller. We're going to work really hard to focus on building our own greatest football league in the world right here in Canada. And I think we can accomplish that.
CBC Sports: What are you proud of as your second season comes to a close?
RA: I've been working hard to build a relationship of trust with the governors. I hope I'm on the right track. I've been working hard to build a relationship of trust with the players. I hope I'm on the right track. I'm thinking big and so maybe I am proud of that. I can envision a day where this league takes a backseat to no one.
But let me close on this thing, what I'm most proud of. I just spent the morning doing a hospital visit to the children's hospital here and to watch our players with those sick kids and to watch how incredibly engaged they are. There's not a player that was looking at his watch trying to figure out if he could sneak out the back door. They're so amazingly engaged with these children and their families. And the thing I'm most proud of is the players. There's no league in the world like ours when it comes to players doing community work. And this morning, watching our guys at that Children's Hospital, that's the thing I'm most proud of.
Watch the entire interview: