Canadians put national pride on line

November 23, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

In Monday's editions of the Toronto Star, the largest newspaper in Canada, the headline on the story of the Baltimore CFLs' victory in Winnipeg was: "Oh, Canada: U.S. Team Eyes Our Grey Cup." The first line of the story: "Is nothing sacred?"

That afternoon, on a nationally televised talk show, a Toronto sportswriter said he was rooting for the B.C. Lions to win Sunday because he wanted the Grey Cup to remain in Canada. He wasn't being facetious. None of the other panelists on the show blinked. Clearly, the sentiment was not out of line to them.

And no, this wave of Canadian jingoism isn't just a creation of media types searching for an angle to hype the end of the Canadian Football League season. Those were regular folks throwing snowballs and taunting the CFLs with upside-down American flags in Winnipeg. That was a member of Canada's House of Commons discussing the issue yesterday, as though it were Topic A in the Great White North.

Indeed, there are many, many people in Canada who are dead serious about rooting for Baltimore to lose Sunday simply because the team is the first from an American city to play in the game.

The root of this passion is easily discerned. In a country that struggles to maintain an identity in the shadow of the United States, yet believes it has a superior culture in many ways, the CFL had long stood as a symbol of independence from the States, one of the increasingly rare institutions that was distinctly Canadian. The CFL game was different from the NFL, and even if many CFL players were American, a quota system maintained a strong Canadian presence. But now the league is undergoing a revolution of sorts -- an American revolution -- and it is striking a nerve.

The CFL has put four teams in the States in the past two years, and more are coming. There is talk that the Canadian player quota will be lowered and the rules will be Americanized. This succeeds in stirring the fear and anger that some Canadians harbor toward the United States, which many Canadians view as a powerful, overwhelming and somewhat troubled big brother. Baltimore's presence in the Grey Cup is just a neat way to sum up all this conflict.

On a logical level, it makes no sense for them to get so upset. The CFL was in dire straits before commissioner Larry Smith decided to Americanize the product in 1992. Each of the league's eight Canadian franchises reportedly lost money in 1993. Expanding to America has brought new life to a dying league. It had to happen. That is why the CFL Players' Association has given a thumbs-up to U.S. expansion, even though there will be fewer jobs for Canadian players. Some jobs are better than no jobs.

But this heated response to Baltimore's presence in the Grey Cup is not founded on such cold, logical thinking. It is coming from the gut. Hey, the CFL still awards a Most Valuable Canadian award at the Grey Cup. The fans' response to the CFLs' making the Grey Cup is an emotional reply to what they perceive as a robbing of their sporting soul. The football fans of Baltimore, if anyone, should be able to relate.

Maybe, to an average American sports fan sitting here, it seems silly to suggest that any pro team's victory could somehow affect nationalism. In the United States, pro sports come down to city vs. city, not country vs. country. No one here cared when the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series, the championship of the supposed American national pastime. Oh, maybe a few people cared. But hardly any.

These matters are far more delicate in Canada, though, because Canada's pro sports identity was long ago submerged into America's. Their best baseball towns joined the major leagues. The National Hockey League is headquartered in New York; now, it even has an American commissioner and teams in Florida and California. The NBA is coming to Toronto and Vancouver.

In other words, they need us to be major league, but we don't need them. And though you may not care, they sure do. They don't like being dependent, and they don't like the arrogance they perceive in their big brother. You wouldn't, either.

Thus, you have an entire country that framed the Blue Jays' World Series victories in national colors, and believes that we did, too. As former CFL player Jim Silye, a member of Canada's House of Commons, said yesterday, "The Blue Jays steal the World Series, and the Americans are just shaking their heads and saying, 'How can Canada take our baseball championship?' Now, there's an opportunity for the States to take our Grey Cup."

If only there was one person down here who actually thought that way.

Ah, well. The truth is that the Canadians can't be too upset about losing their grip on the CFL; if they really cared, they'd pay more attention to the poorly attended league. It's probably just a vocal minority of traditionalists making all this noise. Either way, there is only one certainty: If indeed the Grey Cup has turned into a referendum on nationalism in Canada, in our town, it's just a ballgame.

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