Ambrosie on the right track, but he’s no CFL Superman yet

Randy Ambrosie tosses a football as he speaks during a press conference in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/CP)

OTTAWA — To my ear, Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie says a lot of the right things. Like when he flat-out admits he doesn’t have an answer to your question, rather than try to fool you with a bunch of words that add up to nothing.

It requires honesty and confidence to say, “I don’t know,” three words that recent CFL poobahs were too insecure to utter. And in Ambrosie, the CFL has an every-day commissioner who can speak to the every-day Canadian who still loves three-down football.

But that can work both ways, like in his answer to the question of whether there is a link between concussions in football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE): “The answer is we don’t know.”

Really? Don’t we know?

He plunked down a thick folder full of paper, medical opinions we will assume, that he says are conflicted.

“There are football players who have had CTE,” he said. “I’m not standing in front of you blind to one side of the argument versus the other. I didn’t promise to only study the issue for the things I wanted to read and ignoring everything else.”

Look, there were two things at play here, at a Grey Cup Commissioner’s press conference that was fairly dominated by player health issues. A man whose bosses are facing crippling litigation over CTE can not stand up and build the opponent’s case publicly. Not if wants to keep the job.

It’s an impossible position to be in, and Ambrosie’s lengthy promise to follow the expert medical opinions was as fulsome and honest as he could be. And really, does the head of the CFL’s opinion on CTE matter anyhow? Isn’t this is the coal plant owner talking climate change?

He has already rid the CFL of full-contact practices, a tangible statement of his concern for players’ health. Why do we even ask him about concussions, when nothing short of switching to flag football over tackling could really impact the relationship between football and brain trauma?

Doctors’ opinions matter on this. Men who run or play a sport where head contact is unavoidable will never be objective on this topic, so does it really matter what they say?

“I wasn’t an expert (when he was an offensive lineman in the CFL), and I’m not an expert now,” he said. “As it relates to the human brain, it’s good to be humble. ‘Cause there is so much more we don’t know than what we do.”

I haven’t been to a Grey Cup as a journalist since 2011, and the first thing I notice is that — outside of CTE — many of the issues have not changed. Expansion to Atlantic Canada; the mixed up state of the B.C. Lions front office; medical bills for retired players; engaging a younger generation whose football tastes lean southward to the National Football League.

All of those issues were laid at the feet of recent poobahs like Jeffrey Orridge, Mark Cohon and Tom Wright, who most often responded with streams of corporate bafflegab that, boiled down, amounted to nothing more than a salad full of words unrelated to the actual question.

For the most part, Ambrosie offers up Italian sandwiches as answers. Something to chew on, in a version of English that the average Canadian Football League fan can grasp.

He has played in Western Finals at minus-23 degrees Celsius, and still beams at the memory of the J5V he and his brothers kicked around as kids growing up in Winnipeg.

“I’m walking through stadiums, meeting people,” he said Friday, “and every day I think, ‘I’ve never been more proud to be Canadian than at this point in my life.”

Here is a spin through Ambrosie’s thoughts on a league he has run for less than a year:

On expansion to Halifax: It’s still a chicken and egg situation, with a stadium required before any team could be founded, but a franchise needing a promise to have any chance at getting a stadium built. Ambrosie says they’re actually pulling those two elements closer together, but that any new team has to be a revenue generator, not one that plays two seasons in Halifax before it starts draining CFL finances.

“There has to be added value for everyone. We’re going to put forward a model (to Atlantic ownership) that has to be good for everybody,” he said. “This is the final piece of the Canadian Football League puzzle that everyone would like to see.”

On engaging new and younger fans: His example is, how do we get all those Toronto-based Saskatchewan Roughrider fans who attended the Eastern Final to go to Argos games on a regular basis?

His solutions include keeping scoring up and penalties down, and sticking with one coach’s challenge per game — his finest move a commissioner thus far. Media access needs to be better, and old, stodgy football men need to realize the importance of journalists spreading the quirky, interesting and beloved stories of the CFL over protecting against someone noticing their team working on a gadget play.

• The Johnny Manziels and Art Briles of the world can’t just walk through the CFL’s door when they’re ready to resume football. The CFL has to ask itself if it wants people with a history of violence against women to become part of the league, regardless of star power or football savvy.

• This league has always worked as nine separate entities, with separate ideas on business ideas, ticket sales, drafting, etc. It’s time to act as one team, and establish some league-wide practices to help beef up attendance.

OK, we’ve heard that last one before. If Ambrosie can bridge that gap by this time next year, he’ll truly be a CFL Superman.

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