Bold moves prove CFL, CFLPA are serious about player safety

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie talked about quick decision-making and new tweaks to the league’s schedule- something he wasn’t expect everyone to love.

It’s early, but new CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie is on a roll.

First, he wasn’t afraid to change course on the amount of coaches challenges after deeming the number of them to be less than TV friendly. Next, he swiftly dealt with the Art Briles turmoil.

Both of those issues were a byproduct of him listening and responding to CFL fans.

With his latest move, Ambrosie is listening to the players — something Ambrosie vowed to do when he took over as commissioner.

And today’s announcement was proof positive.

“The credit for this should go to our friends and partners at the player’s association,” Ambrosie told Sportsnet. “I got a call from Jeff and Brian two weeks ago saying maybe it’s time given that I said I wanted to look at player safety as a priority. They opened the door to a conversation and it shows what happens when you have a spirit of partnership.”

So far, he’s living up to that promise.

On Wednesday’s live CFL Twitter show #CFLThisWeek, Ambrosie, along with Brian Ramsay, executive-director of the Canadian Football League Players Association, and Jeff Keeping, president of the CFLPA, announced two changes they say will promote player safety.

The first is that effective immediately, and going forward, CFL teams will no longer be allowed to hold any “full-contact, padded practices” during the season once training camps are over.

Prior to Wednesday, CFL teams were permitted to hold up to 17 such practices per season.

The second is that beginning next season the CFL schedule will run one week longer (21 weeks), to provide the players with more time for rest and recuperation between games. As a result, the 2018 season will start a week earlier, maintaining Grey Cup week as the last week of November.

Earlier this year, the NBA took a similar step — citing the same reasons — and extended its season by a week.

Next season each CFL team will have three bye weeks, as opposed to two. Each team will still play an 18-game schedule.

In addition to the benefits surrounding player safety, Wednesday’s announced changes should also produce the following:

With the season starting a week earlier, more games will be played in what should be warmer weather. That should in turn help promote better attendance in a still largely, gate-driven league.

TSN, the league’s only TV rights holder, gets an extra week of content. Although the same number of games will be played, talk about those games and issues pertaining to them will begin a week earlier than in the past.

But the most important issue dealt with in Wednesday’s announcement — at least from the player’s perspective — is avoiding players playing on short weeks.

Earlier this year, the Ottawa Redblacks had a stretch of three games in 11 days between July 14 and 24, with byes in two of the final three weeks of the schedule.

Ambosie added that he had conversations with the board of governors, teams presidents and general managers and it was a decision supported by everyone.

“I think we should have an open mind,” Ambrosie said. “Credit to the players for not making this an economic issue and neither did we.”

Despite a slightly longer season, this was not a compensation issue for the CFLPA.

“We really looked at this as a player safety initiative,” Keeping said. “It’s going to benefit our players directly. It was a great way as a package to look after the players and add to the product on the field.”

In some cases, scheduling issues are unavoidable because some teams don’t own their stadiums and therefore don’t have first right of refusal on dates. Yet, with some preliminary modelling, the league believes Wednesday’s move should cut down on the number of short weeks (games played with six games of rest or less) by two-thirds.

As for the abandonment of padded practices, the move may put pressure on some other pro and amateur leagues to follow suit.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have lead the way in the NFL in abandoning full contact, padded practices in favour of practices with a higher tempo and using robot tackling dummies to help simulate reps.

It’s no coincidence that the Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin, like Ambrosie is a former player, who gets the grind of the long season and the attrition practice puts on your body before you get to a game.

The NFL has made changes to its practices, but nothing as progressive as this. The current NFL/NFLPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA) mandated the off-season be reduced by five weeks; the number of total padded practices during the season reduced to 14; and training camp two-a-days eliminated. Some NFL coaches believe the deterioration of offensive line play is related to the these changes. We’ll have to wait and see if this well-intentioned gesture elicits similar complaints from CFL coaches.

But given that all three men who brokered the deal are either current or former offensive linemen, I’m confident the Canadian game won’t be negatively impacted.

The CFL board of governors chose Ambrosie as its next commissioner because there’s belief that he could use his playing experience to help find ways to compromise with the CFLPA in ways that wouldn’t hurt their business interest.

It’s early, but so far so good.