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At a crossroads amid cancelled season, the CFL must repair relationship with its players

In 1909 Canada hit the motherlode twice.

The first was in July, when gold was discovered near the northeastern edge of Ontario. Months later in December, among the hustle and bustle of Toronto, silver was the prize when the Grey Cup was unearthed at Rosedale Field for a lucky few thousand fans to witness.

And a tradition unlike any other was born.

So few nations have a game to call their own, confined within their national identity and country lines, yet ours has been here for more than a century — Canadian football.

Now dust will sacrilegiously settle where champagne is supposed to slosh in the chalice of the oldest trophy in North American professional sports.

For the first time since 1919 the league will not play.

The fans have looked on as a public war of words and bruised egos unravelled in the mean streets of Twitter. Players found information about their livelihood from the often garbage-lined streets of social media, where the deadlines edged backward like an offence with discipline problems drawing flag after flag.

The last time the Grey Cup wasn’t kissed on a typically cold Sunday night, this country we love looked very different. The Canadian National Railway had just been formed, the First World War had just ended and the Winnipeg General Strike reshaped labour relations for the better, empowering the working class to stand up for their rights as the creators of their products.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Jacqueline Doorey, Devin Heroux discuss CFL’s lost season:

Between other leagues starting up again and the CFL’s livelihood depending on ticket sales, Devin Heroux explains the ramifications of the lost season. 12:05

How will the country look the next time the Grey Cup is awarded? How will the league look?

As players, we are — by design — kept far away from the rooms where decisions are made about our careers and the league which gives those careers life. But we don’t want to be; we’ve lived in this league for years with our ears to the heartbeat of the public and our friends. I interviewed former teammates and colleagues of mine for this piece with a collective Canadian-league playing experience of more than 35 years, and their rejoinder was uniform.

Our league is special to us and its fans because of the things that make it unique. It is truly Canadian, from its quirky rules to its run-ins with absurd weather conditions, from the sense of community around each team to each team’s involvement in their communities. And while imperfections are what give beauty its depth, there are some blemishes that cannot be ignored or redeemed.

Yet there is cause for hope.

In the wake of a cancelled 2020 season due to an unpredictable global pandemic, there is room to breathe, reflect and plan for growth, if the powers that be decide to take advantage.

WATCH | Edmonton’s SirVincent Rogers joins CBC to discuss cancelled season:

The CFL cancels the 2020 season owing to COVID-19. Star offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers talks with the CBC’s Dianne Buckner about the impact on him.. his fellow players.. and the fans they entertain. 6:01

Our league is so clearly at its crossroad, my colleagues and I don’t feel we play in a league that values us, or wants to build with us, and if it wasn’t exactly what many of us expected, it would hurt a lot. We elect our player reps to sit in meetings, only to have them stood up by the people who decide our fate.

But if we reverse course and come to the table with a league and ownership that sees us as partners, I know we will rejoice in knowing that we can make this league boom. It has happened with leagues all around us, over and over again, by committing to turning right at the fork with a unified goal, not trying to win a victory over the men who bleed daily for you.

My colleagues want to see an investment into us. There is a palpable disinterest in broadening the scope and willingness to market us as what we are, world-class athletes playing a fast, entertaining and impossibly challenging game. Other leagues have found success in telling stories, grand ones at that, about the men and women who sweat for them.

This marketing and storytelling and the grandiosity of it all has a purpose, to create stars that seem larger than life and in-turn create lifelong fans of these athletes. The window dressing around their leagues also gives the allusion of importance, society attributes value, character and weight to athletes we see more of, hear more of and thus it’s assumed their talents must outweigh the athletes whose faces we’ve seen far less.

WATCH | CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie tells MPs league is in ‘jeopardy’:

Nate Behar, CFL free agent and author of the essay ‘To Pimp a Movement’, urges Canadians: ‘Don’t let your fire dampen’. 12:11

We feel this disconnect as CFL players, in the cutting comment sections and generally dispassionate way we hear our teammates described compared to their often equally talented counterparts in other leagues. You would never know by the way our league is marketed that every year men come here from other leagues with gaudy production numbers and they simply do not play. They can’t cut it. They cannot compete with the talent in our league.

But our product is hard to find and hard to consume. The ease at which our society ingests content from sports leagues worldwide is debatably frightening, but our league lags behind. Content is held by one owner, and negligibly disseminated to grow our digital footprint. We don’t exist for months at a time.

The proof is in the pudding. Leagues that thrive care for their players. They are their partners, not their employees. We have the desire to partner with our league, but we are perpetually left wondering why our league doesn’t want to partner with us. So we call out for more, not just for ourselves, but for this league that we love. A symbiotic relationship, where players are empowered.

The product we create is consumable on many platforms. Where the league is marketed to our demographics by any means necessary in our new digital age. Where the desire to grow this league together is paramount.

The final question I posed to the many teammates and CFL players I spoke with was simple.

“If you woke up tomorrow as the head of our league, the key decision-maker and stakeholder, what is the primary goal that you will let govern every decision?” The answers? Every single one said the same thing: Repair the relationship with our players, put them first and be their ally.

For the first time in over 100 years, there will be no Grey Cup. In 1919, things looked a lot different. Although it could be justified to imitate the Winnipeg General Strike as the players of our true Canadian league, we do not need to. The game has stopped. Now, more than ever, we can move it forward.


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