A healthy dose of Canadian football will not protect anyone against COVID-19, at least not in the normal sense.
But confirmation that there will be a 14-game regular season, six-team playoff and a Dec. 12 Grey Cup game in Hamilton is indeed a welcome shot in the arm for Canadian Football League players who haven’t cashed a game cheque since the fall of 2019 and three-down fans who were forced to binge watch Tiger King instead of the Tiger-Cats after the 2020 campaign was cancelled.
So, when the CFL’s governors voted unanimously on Monday to approve an Aug. 5 kickoff, they did so knowing that lingering public health authority limits on stadium capacity in most provinces will virtually guarantee another money-losing campaign, but also that it was obviously possible and incredibly important to get back onto the field and into the public consciousness.
CFL fans need to see much less of commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s apologetic mug and more of Mike Reilly’s game day finery, Bryan Burnham’s one-handed snags, Lewis Ward’s no-doubters. They need to hear a piercing Simoni Lawrence chirp and the revised lyrics to the Edmonton Elks fight song.
The embattled little league is at such an economic crossroads — its continued dalliance with XFL leadership lays bare the need to buttress a failing business model with new revenue streams — that staying dark for a second straight season would have been disastrous. The league might not have actually died outright, but it would have required extraordinary attempts at resuscitation.
So league leadership, in concert with public health officials and the CFL Players Association, did all the behind-the-scenes work necessary to construct detailed health and safety protocols and produce an amended collective bargaining agreement. The latter includes purposeful quarantine workarounds like five-player taxi squads in each of the nine CFL cities that can be accessed by any team in need of an injury replacement player who has passed through quarantine.
Ambrosie said he is confident the plan is solid and they will be able to keep their players on the field for the duration of the schedule. The league is encouraging those players to get vaccinated, just as they are urging fans to do the same. The hope is that vaccination rates climb, gathering limits ease and a sense of normalcy descends in time for fans to feel safe and comfortable in stadiums operating at full capacity for home games all over the country in September, October and November.
The league can’t control the COVID-19 landscape any better today than it could in August of last year, when governors voted to cancel a proposed six-game season to be held in a Winnipeg bubble environment. But the governmental and public health authorities charged with responding to the pandemic’s threats are indeed in a stronger, more knowledgeable, confident and authoritative place today.
In that significant shift the CFL sees enough hope to go forward.
“Last summer was such a remarkable time,” said Ambrosie. “We were still relatively early into the COVID crisis and so many questions were being asked. We weren’t into the vaccination stream yet; there were all of those issues being dealt with. … We all know we couldn’t have any fans in our stadiums last August. And now we are looking very dramatically at the opportunity to have CFL fans return to CFL stadiums and watch the game they love.”
Last August the CFLPA leadership stated publicly that the league governors should have voted to play the 2020 season, despite the prospect of heavy financial losses. They are clearly on board with Monday’s decision.
“We are pleased the CFL Board of Governors did the right thing by voting in favour of a good and fair agreement that makes it possible for games to be played, with strong player safety standards in place, as soon as August 5,” the association said in a statement. “CFLPA members are looking forward to getting back to the game as well as the communities they proudly represent. We will continue to closely monitor decisions made by the various levels of government to understand how we can meet pandemic safety protocols and get players back to work.”
The 16-week, 63-game 2021 schedule will be released Tuesday. Players already know they will enter a seven-day quarantine on June 25 and training camps will open July 10. For now the league is planning on a traditional east/west alignment and six playoff teams. However, it has left open the possibility of a single, nine-team division and eight-team playoff scenario.
“Leaving it open is an opportunity to make decisions on the fly,” said Ambrosie. “Look, if we’ve learned anything through this past 17 months together it’s that sometimes things change and you want to be able to accommodate those changes if and when you need to. “