On Nov. 26, fans of the Canadian Football League (CFL) watched with excitement as the Calgary Stampeders and the Toronto Argonauts competed in the 115th Grey Cup. The Argonauts ultimately prevailed in the tight 27 to 24 matchup and clinched a 17th league championship. This highly-anticipated game marked the end of a transformative 2017 season for the CFL.
In September, the CFL implemented a variety of changes designed to limit head injuries amongst its players. Most notably, the league banned players from intentionally slamming into each other during regular season practices with the hope that doing so will reduce wear-and-tear on their brains and bodies. In order to enforce this non-contact rule, the league prohibits players from wearing shoulder pads to practice. However, members of the CFL are still required to wear helmets every time they step onto the field.
Some coaches were dismayed by the NFL’s decision to bar contact practices during the regular season without consulting them first. Jason Maas, the head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos, stated, “There are a lot of things that get lost when you decide to throw pads away. With pads, you get true contact.” Critics of the new policy urge CFL leaders to consider alternative options, such as limiting the number of contact practices each team is allowed to conduct rather than cutting them from the regular season entirely.
Randy Ambrosie, the CFL’s current commissioner and a former offensive guard for the Calgary Stampeders, stands by the league’s decision to cut contact practices from the regular season, even though doing so has resulted in criticism from some players and coaches. “This is a way for us to improve our game and keep it at the forefront and be progressive,” he explained. “I know change is hard, and sometimes you have to make the bold decision in order to move things forward. That’s the way the world works.”
The CFL will continue to make progressive changes in its 2018 season. The league has already announced that each team will play their 18 regular season games over a span of 21 weeks, as opposed to the current 20. This modification will give teams three bye weeks instead of the two they have enjoyed in previous seasons and will hopefully lead to less injury and better quality football.
Ambrosie commented, “Those tight turnaround games are very hard on the players and very hard on their bodies. What we want to do is keep our players healthy and keep them on the field performing.”
The CFL is not the only professional football league that has taken steps to protect its players from head injuries. In 2011, the NFL announced that each of its teams would only be allowed 14 contact practices during the regular season, as opposed to the unlimited amount they enjoyed before. The NFL reported a 35 percent decline in football-related concussions in the three years following this change. However, in light of the recent findings about the long-term effects of concussions, several experts believe that the NFL must take further action to reduce head injury amongst its players.
The Practice Like Pros organization advocates for non-contact football practices at youth, collegiate and professional levels. Its founder, Terry O’Neil, believes that the NFL should follow the CFL’s example and ban contact practices during the regular season. Though doing so will not completely eliminate head injuries amongst its players, it will likely reduce them. “It’s pretty obvious: Less contact equals fewer injuries,” explained O’Neil. “It’s that simple.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy announced in September that the league currently has no plans to lessen the amount of contact practices allowed during the regular season. However, he commented that the NFL will seek empirical data from the CFL in order to determine whether their policy changes were effective in reducing concussions.
Though the CFL stated that such empirical data will not be available until September of 2018, Blue Bomber offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld already feels the positive effects of eliminating contact from regular season practices. “You basically get in a car accident every game with the amount of contact we have, so we don’t need to be doing that during the week as well,” he explained. “Being able to step on the field on game day and feel kind of fresh has been awesome.”
Ambrosie added, “This was a conscientious effort to make the game safer. The only way we’re going to know is to try it and let the data drive us to some conclusion.”