CFL import rule will export Canadians

March 01, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

The Americanization of the Canadian Football League isn't likely to end with its recent expansion into the United States.

When the CFL governors hold their annual meeting this week in Sacramento, Calif., they will pry open a can of controversy guaranteed to raise eyebrows and temperatures north of the border.

From all indications, the league is poised to significantly modify the import rule that limits American participation on Canadian rosters once its collective bargaining agreement expires after the 1994 season.

Bottom line: more Americans, fewer Canadians playing in the CFL. Let the uproar begin.

"I think there will be some people who will be quite disgruntledandthey may say that we have sold out our birthright -- exaggerations of the situation," said Roger Yachetti, chairman of the community consortium that owns the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. "But I think the majority of Canadians want to see good football. I don'tthink we should be a quota system. I'd like to level the playing field."

In the name of competitive balance, the league governors wildiscuss plans to reduce the mandatory number of Canadians per roster from 20 to something like 10. As the bylaw stands, each Canadian team must have at least 20 Canadians and no more than 17 Americans on the 37-man roster.

There is no limit on Americans in the States, where teams such as Baltimore can field an all-American team, if not an All-American team. That prospect fuels the fear that U.S. teams ultimately will dominate.

Dan Ferrone, newly elected president of the CFL Players' Association, isn't ready to concede the competitive issue yet. Not after watching the Sacramento Gold Miners go 6-12 in their inaugural season.

"If Canadian teams became uncompetitive, the players would be demanding that the ratio [of Canadians-to-Americans] end," said Ferrone, a native Canadian who played 12 years in the league. "As soon as it becomes uncompetitive, it's the end of that issue.

"[But] I don't know if it will ever become a competitive question. One team is not a good indication. Baltimore will be a great indication because they have [coach] Don Matthews, who knows the league inside out. It's not like [Sacramento's] Kay Stephenson trying to bring an NFL system into the CFL. Matthews will go after experienced talent to put on his team. If he goes with experience, he will be successful."

Stephenson, who coached the first CFL franchise in the States, said the competitive balance issue was "overplayed" last season. For Sacramento, the critical factors were the differences in style and experience. Of the 103 players the Gold Miners employed, none was Canadian. "It's not that we didn't want to," he said, "but that we were too late getting started."

Still, Stephenson says a reduction in the Canadian quota is clearly in the offing. "I tend to agree that at some point, just by virtue of the numbers, something will have to be done to even things up for every team," he said.

CFL commissioner Larry Smith said the import rule needs revision, not elimination, for reasons of depth and motivation. The top level of Canadians can match the Americans, he says, but there is a drop-off down the depth chart. The rule also serves as incentive for Canadian players who aspire to play pro football, but who do not have the qualifications of players coming out of the States.

"To eliminate the rule for Canadian teams would not be wise," Smith said. "No question it has to be modified, and we have a lower level of Canadians. Where it ends, who can say? It's not practical to say you have to play 20 Canadians."

Bill Comrie, who owns the British Columbia Lions, says it's a matter of supply and demand. There's a high demand for quality Canadian players, but only a limited supply. And that drives up the salary range of those quality Canadians.

"Our problem is that the supply and demand is way off-balance," Comrie said. "So what happens is, we have to treat those players with kid gloves. They get paid more, and we can't really cut them for being late to practice."

There will be no change in rules this week because the collective bargaining agreement has another season to run. After that, it's a point of negotiation.

Already, some Canadians seem resigned to the inevitable.

"The face of the league is going to change," said Cal Murphy, general manager and coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. "There won't be any [competitive] balance. There will be an imbalance."

Will the Canadians be offended in the process?

"Some will," Comrie said, "but they will get over it quickly."

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