One-on-one with CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie

In part one of Sportsnet’s two-part sit-down interview, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie explains why he believes CFL football can be a success in Toronto.

It’s just beyond the halfway point of the 2017 CFL season, and already the rookie year for CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has been a busy one.

In his first week at the helm, Ambrosie had to deal with a player putting his hands on an official. Two months into the job, the replay system was altered on the fly to bring coach’s challenges down to just one per game. Ambrosie has been open to playoff reform and instrumental in the “Diversity is Strength” campaign fast-tracked by the league after the acts of violence last month in Virginia.

Despite the constant state of change, Ambrosie has settled into the job. He’s even had to manage a PR nightmare when he recently convinced the Hamilton Tiger-Cats not to hire disgraced coach Art Briles after the pubic outcry became overwhelming.

My interview with the commissioner took place well before the controversy surrounding the hiring of Briles so it doesn’t get his perspective on that, but in our time together Ambrosie did not cower from tough questions.

Most interviews with a commissioner are like an inquisition. You put them on the stand and get them to state, on the record, their position on issues that matter to the public who buy their product. There was certainly a “State of the League” aspect to my time with Randy Ambrosie when I huddled up with him at the league’s downtown Toronto offices. There were two issues I wanted to hear his action plan on: the health of the Toronto Argonauts franchise and player safety. These are the issues I felt would be most critical when Ambrosie was first hired.

In our sitdown, he addressed why he was optimistic Toronto can and will support Canadian football. You can see that part above. Ambrosie then explained his current stance on CTE and how football can be played safely. Those sentiments were expressed in the second part of our interview below.

But the most interesting dynamic wasn’t talking business, but just talking football. Ambrosie is not only a former CFL player, he is a football guy through and through. He speaks the language of the game naturally. It was refreshing to converse about the sport with an executive that is just as big of a football nut as I am. Here are some responses on his perception of the league which I found noteworthy.

On the success of Ottawa:
“It wasn’t that long ago Ottawa wasn’t even in the league. They would argue they have the funnest, most passionate fans in the country. The other teams are going to argue this and they should. They should all be passionate about their product. But we’d all agree Ottawa has been a success and they were out of football not that long ago. Great ownership; what they’ve done with the stadium, they’ve created a great football experience and then put a great product on the field. Those are the three keys to make a franchise in this league work.”

On how to continue to convince young Canadians to be part of his player workforce:
“I challenge the premise that you can step out of college into a compensation opportunity the way our players do. I think that is a bit of a misnomer. The players are doing fairly well when they step out of university and into a CFL locker-room. It probably won’t surprise people to hear I did better financially off the field than I did on. But I’d have to go back to my roots in this game to set up that opportunity. I used my roots in this game to, A) learn a lot about myself; B) I’m proud of the fact that I’ve developed as a leader learning from the great leaders I’ve come across in this game.”

On life after football for players:
“There is research being done that would show our life expectancy is going to grow six months for every calendar year. Which is to say this generation is going to be around awhile. Even if they play longer, let’s say 10 years, they are going to be 32 when they retire. There is a long life after 32. What are they going to do with that time? It’s not just from a financial point of view, it is the fulfilment that comes with having a place to go and doing something meaningful with your life. Of all the things I want to do, if I could meet in 25 years a large group of these players that say, ‘You know Randy, I did well after the game in a large part because you gave me a little nudge.’ If I could do that I could say my tenure as commissioner would be a success.”

On his relationship with the CFLPA:
“My relationship with the players needs to be a holistic one. I want it to be strong. I want the players to know that I care about them. But what I don’t want to do is have a piecemeal conversation about the little bits and pieces that we need to work on with our player partners. What I want to do with the players is have big, holistic conversations about how we all do better. I’ve been in their shoes. I know what it’s like. I know it is a hard way to make a living. I’ll do my best to be an honourable partner for the players.”

On conflict of being a former player now representing the owners:
“In many ways I relate to both sides of the table. My strongest hand when presenting to the board for this job is I can sit in the board room and go through spreadsheets. I will work hard to let the governors know that I am serious abut the business. But I also relate to the players. You can think of it as a conflict. I choose to think about it as a great opportunity as a partnership where compromises are made, solutions are found and ultimately we grow the game together.”

On players self-reporting head injuries:
“We have such a strong culture of brotherhood that players don’t want to let their teammates down. They tend to play through injuries. You have to know the difference of being hurt and injured. You don’t play when you’re hurt; you can play when you’re injured.”

On parents’ fear of football not being safe:
“I can’t guarantee anyone’s child will be safe doing anything. That’s not how the world works. As we evolve we are constantly making things safer. I grew up with three brothers and my parents drove a Mercury and we didn’t wear seat belts. That doesn’t make them bad parents. I love my parents, they are gone now. They did the best they could with the information we had. What I can tell parents is the coaches now are being trained on the best techniques. They are giving young Canadians the best chance to be safe, healthy and successful. Life is a contact sport and football is no different. We’ll keep evolving the safety of the game just the way society is evolving the safety of things in all aspects of life.”

On the Grey Cup:
“I want the Grey Cup to be the ultimate day of national celebration. Maybe as much as Canada day. We are the ultimate expression of the inclusiveness and the opportunity of Canadians who come here for a better life. Canada is not the promise of a better life, it’s the opportunity of a better life. We have invited players into this tent called the CFL who couldn’t get an opportunity elsewhere and they’ve become stars on a global scale. I want that to be woven into the celebration of our country as Canadians understand what part the CFL has played in our inclusiveness.”