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Vanstone: Draft day is the CFL's annual illusion - FlagSpin

Vanstone: Draft day is the CFL’s annual illusion

Rob Vanstone feels that the CFL should celebrate and emphasize Canadians 365 days per year — not just on draft day.

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CFL teams traditionally spend a few hours per year drafting Canadians and the rest of the time shafting them.

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Consider Tuesday night, when the nine clubs combined to select 70-plus Canadian players, many of whom were effusively praised by coaches, general managers and player-personnel types.

It was the one time per year when Canadians were celebrated, en masse, in the so-called Canadian Football League.

For the remaining 364 (or 365) days, the league’s powers-that-be might as well break out into a chorus of “America The Beautiful.”

The sad reality is that very few of the players who were chosen on Tuesday will become recognizable figures.

Many of the draftees who do end up in starting positions will toil in virtual anonymity on the offensive line, thanks to ratio provisions that stack the deck in favour of Americans. (The CFL Players’ Association, which signs off on such an inequitable arrangement, is also to blame here.)

As many as 17 of the 24 starting positions on offence or defence can be occupied by Americans, leaving only 30 per cent of the front-line spots for Canadians.

Even then, an insufficiently low number does not paint the entire picture.

If you tabulate the number of Canadians who are actually noticeable — primarily the home-grown running backs and receivers — the de-emphasis of nationals becomes especially evident.

In 2021, for example, each of the top 10 finishers in receiving yardage hailed from the United States.

Only two Canadians cracked the top 20 — Nic Demski of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (who was 11th, with 654 yards) and Kurleigh Gittens Jr. of the Toronto Argonauts (15th; 605 yards). The Saskatchewan RoughridersKian Schaffer-Baker was 21st, with 563 yards.

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The situation is somewhat better at running back, primarily because Winnipeg conventionally starts a Canadian (see: Andrew Harris, Brady Oliveira, Johnny Augustine).

Harris, now a 35-year-old Argonaut, may also prove to be a ratio-changer in Toronto if Father Time does not intervene. Not far away, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have given significant playing time to Montreal-born running back Sean Thomas Erlington, with decent results.

Also worth noting is an applaudably anomalous situation in Vancouver, where the B.C. Lions are actually poised to start a Canadian quarterback (Nathan Rourke).

Even so, predominantly American coaches and GMs generally prefer U.S.-born quarterbacks, tailbacks, receivers, pass rushers, linebackers, defensive backs …

Preposterously, there is even a movement in the direction of American Canadians.

The proposed “naturalized American” rule — “marginalized Canadian” is a better description — would grant national status, roster-wise, to a U.S.-born player who has spent at least three years with the same team or four seasons in the league.

If the naturalized American becomes a reality and therefore cuts into the number of authentic Canadian starters, the national influence could very well border on the indiscernible.

The Canadian content, within the context of the starting lineup, might ultimately amount to four offensive linemen. Or three offensive linemen and a gap-filling defensive tackle.

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There would be a consequent disincentive for any coach to deploy even one Canadian playmaker.

Some observers may very well applaud such a situation.

People of that description belong to the “I want to see the best players” constituency.

Never mind the fact that the supposed “best players” have already been roundly rejected by the NFL. The, er, thinking is along the lines of “they’re Americans, so they must be superior.”

The other oft-promulgated specious argument revolves around the assertion that more Canadians than ever are employed by NFL teams, thereby reducing the calibre of national talent available to CFL clubs.

Not mentioned nearly as often is the fact that NCAA football has become a magnet for Canadian-born players.

Therefore, the overall reservoir of talent should be deeper than it was a few decades ago — back in the days when clubs started 10 or more Canadians.

Consider, too, advancements in coaching at the Canadian university level, and the fact that junior football can be an incubator for CFL teams. For example, Regina Thunder graduates Dan Clark and Logan Ferland both started on the Roughriders’ offensive line last season.

But what do we hear from CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie?

“I think what we’ve had to acknowledge is that the decline in participation rates in football in Canada is having an effect on the size of the talent pool,” Ambrosie said during a recent fan forum in Hamilton, according to

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Instead of lamenting the “decline in participation rates in football in Canada,” which can largely be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher-ups within the CFL should resolve to do everything in their power to support the game in our home and native land, with the objective of bolstering the numbers.

At the same time, they should acknowledge that the talent pool is deep enough that someone of Schaffer-Baker’s calibre can last until the fourth round (30th overall) of the 2020 draft. Gittens, by the way, went unclaimed until the third round (23rd overall) in 2019.

When Gittens and Schaffer-Baker are among the very few Canadian starters who are in a position to even remotely remind us of one-time go-to receivers such as Ray Elgaard, Jeff Fairholm, Joe Poplawski, Jim Young, Terry Evanshen, Rocky DiPietro, Andy Fantuz, Chris Getzlaf, Jason Clermont, Ken Nielsen, Dave Sapunjis, Tony Gabriel or Brad Sinopoli, does the CFL model really get kids excited about watching or playing football?

And how much is the CFL doing at the grassroots level to promote participation?

Why doesn’t the league ensure that it is operating in lockstep with Football Canada, U Sports and the CJFL? A rule change such as the recent migration of the hash marks should be considered within the context of Canadian football as a whole.

Why, oh why, is the NFL eating the CFL’s lunch by establishing youth flag football programs across Canada? Shouldn’t the CFL be at the forefront of any such initiative?

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The answer, of course, should be a robust “yes.” But the league should also be the primary promoter of Canadian-born players, and not just during the annual day of deception.

The sports world is ever-changing, as are the times. Supplement your steady diet of sports coverage by subscribing to the Regina Leader-Post’s 306 Sports Fix newsletter. Each week, sports editor Rob Vanstone will provide additional commentary on the Roughriders, Pats and other teams/sports of interest, along with a peek behind the curtain. Click here to subscribe.

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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