Could this be last stand for CFL quota system?

November 19, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- One Winnipeg columnist called it "Canadian football's last stand." Another suggested that if Baltimore wins, the opening lyrics to "O Canada" should be changed to "Uh-oh, Canada."

Obviously, the Eastern Division title isn't the only thing at stake tomorrow in this snow-covered city. All of Canada is bracing for the inevitable nightmare of U.S. expansion -- a team composed entirely of Americans in the Grey Cup final.

If Baltimore wins, the CFL quota requiring Canadian teams to carry 20 Canadian-born players almost certainly will be reduced. If Baltimore wins big -- say, 57-10 big -- it might be eliminated entirely.

"If Baltimore comes in here and blows us out, the Canadian teams will say we can't compete under this quota system anymore," said Winnipeg punter Bob Cameron, a native Canadian -- or non-import, in CFL lingo.

"But if we go to the Grey Cup, then our players' association can say to the league in the off-season, 'Look, we don't need to change the ratio, we can compete against these guys.' "

In truth, the issue might already be decided. Baltimore owner Jim Speros said yesterday that the Canadian teams want the quota lowered, so that they can compete on a more level playing field with the American clubs next season.

The current system is ludicrously unfair, but U.S. labor laws prohibit the CFL from imposing its quota on American soil. Further U.S. expansion threatens the very fiber of this 102-year-old league. The Canadian player is becoming a dinosaur.

True, Sacramento, Las Vegas and Shreveport had the same advantages this season as Baltimore, but those clubs were so poorly run, it didn't matter. Speros got the right coach and right players, and now his team might win the Grey Cup in its first year of existence.

The Canadians are too nice to say it, but you know what they're thinking:

Yankee go home.

As for the Blue Bombers, well, not all of them see this as a battle for truth, justice and the Canadian way. Most just want to avenge their 57-10 defeat in Baltimore on Oct. 29. They view the CFLs as their opponents, not the ugly Americans.

"Just because they were born below the 49th parallel doesn't mean they're superior," offensive tackle Miles Gorrell said.

"Once the game starts, no one goes running around saying, 'Where are you from?' " slot back Gerald Wilcox said. "If we get beat, we'll get beat because they're better than we are. Nationalities have nothing to do with it."

Still, CFL rules allow only 14 imports, forcing Canadian teams to fill more than half their rosters with home-grown players. The difference shows in depth. The Canadian teams start all of their Americans, so their reserves are entirely Canadian.

Think about what happened when the CFLs lost Mike Pringle -- they substituted another American, Robert Drummond, with minimal drop-off. Likewise, Winnipeg replaced one American running back (Blaise Bryant) with another (Keith Woodside). But now their backup is Matt Pearce, a Canadian with limited ability.

It's marginal players like Pearce who stand the most to lose if the quota is dropped. Speros talks about putting the "best product on the field." Even the most staunch Canadian union members recognize the threat to competitive balance.

Winnipeg player representative Chris Walby says he can envision the union agreeing to eight Canadians per club -- a reasonable compromise, since only 10 Canadians start, anyway. But Walby, a 14-year CFL veteran, fears the league wants to lower the number to five, or one-fourth the current quota.

Naturally, this is partly about money. Canadian stars are among the league's highest-paid players -- there are so few of them, they command top dollar. The elimination of the quota would drive down salaries. More Americans would be available to work cheap.

"You're going to have these growing pains," Speros says, but at what price? Even with the quota, the CFL is barely surviving in Canada. Hamilton might move. And as of Thursday morning, only 12,000 tickets had been sold for tomorrow's Western Division final between Calgary and British Columbia.

Eliminate the Canadian player, and you're eliminating the principal drawing card for Canadian fans. Take Walby and Gorrell, 325-pound offensive tackles in their late 30s. They're folk heroes in Winnipeg. They're what the CFL is all about.

Eliminate the quota, and you might never see their kind in the league again.

"We don't put the emphasis on college football the way they do in the states," Cameron says. "Hockey is the big sport. University football draws maybe 2,000 or 3,000. It's not a moneymaker. It's a money-loser.

"We play two-three months a year. There's no spring camp. When you come play in the CFL, you're behind the eight ball. It's a guy from the University of Manitoba vs. a guy from USC. Nine out of 10 need the quota system to get a shot."

Baltimore saved the league.

Baltimore ruined it.

This is it, Canadian football's last stand.

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