The 101st Grey Cup was a bit of a Cinderella story with two underdog teams winning their semi-final matchups, and the Saskatchewan Roughriders — who arguably have the best football fans in Canada, if not the best fans of any sport in the world — earning the rare chance to compete for, and win, a Grey Cup title in front of their hometown fans.
I only hope that this fairy tale lives happily ever after. The CFL is doing reasonably well bringing out fans, but the shadow of the NFL is growing and I personally know a lot of people that care far more about NFL teams than their local CFL franchise. They would argue that the NFL is a better game, and at times I would have to agree — the recent Grey Cup being one of them — although the CFL can be great, too, and has given me some of my favourite games of all time over the years.
The obvious solution would be for the CFL to change its rules to reflect the NFL. After all, the hockey world mainly plays the sport by our rules, why shouldn’t our football teams play by the same rules as the top professional league in the world?
Traditions and national pride are well and good, but there’s a business side to the sport that can’t be overlooked. I would be crushed if the CFL ever folded because Toronto got an NFL team (no thanks, Bon Jovi), or people stopped caring.
In my view, adopting American rules would draw more fans, head off an NFL expansion into Canada and would probably result in some kind of farm system agreements with NFL teams that need a place to condition third-stringers and develop their young players. That source of revenue, plus an increased television audience, opens the door for a significant league expansion. I’d like to see a true cross-Canada league with teams in Halifax, Fredericton, Quebec City, Ottawa, Windsor, Saskatoon and maybe even Victoria, with small stadiums and a great family-friendly product on the field.
But there’s a significant downside to my idea. One of the biggest recent NFL stories is the head injury issue, which is far bigger and far more serious than anyone ever suspected. Repeated, high-speed helmet-on-helmet collisions are causing brain damage, shortening the lives of players, and leaving them impaired later in life. Brain injuries might even play a role in the increasingly erratic behaviour of athletes off the field.
Even NFL and sports commentator Bob Costas, who makes a good living covering the sport, said he wouldn’t let his own son play football. That’s a big deal.
But brain injuries are not nearly as significant an issue in the CFL, where players are generally low-paid and have no interest in ruining one another’s livelihoods with head-on-head tackles, and where the three-down system keeps the ball in the air for most of the game. Teams rarely run it up the middle like they do in the NFL, with only two chances to make 10 yards versus three or four.
Unless the NFL can find ways to make the sport safer — rule changes, better equipment, better monitoring of brain health — maybe the CFL is the way to go after all.