In For A Dozen: CFL's competitive balance, nit-picking Western's passing stats & not sticking to sports

Until Twitter gives us 280 characters and focus more on curbing the white nationalists instead of Rose McGowan, thoughts go in this space; #notstickingtosports. 
  1. Competitive balance starts with collective bargaining. We begin with the CFL, where the East is now 7-27-1 against the West — hey, a winning percentage above .200 — this season. In all the why-ing about the disparity, it seems like the difference in cost of living is seldom raised. A dollar stretches farther in four of five western markets (Vancouver being the exception) than in any four of the eastern cities (Hamilton is beginning to get pricey. .

    That must be a factor in signing players to a rookie contract, and retaining and attracting veteran free agents.

    The CFL's negotiation of its next collective agreement has the obvious hook that commissioner Randy Ambrosie was once on labour's side of the table.

    Player safety is expected to be one of the main issues, but one that ought to come up is exploring whether it's actually the best policy to have a hard salary cap. Every city and tax jurisdiction is unique. This has been a protracted phenomenon that seems to supersede quality of teams coaching.
  2. So how would you change the CFL playoff format? Picture yours truly sitting here with a convoluted idea about how to reward the best regular-season performances and keep an East-vs.-West motif for the Grey Cup. Then Venerable Wally Buono piped up last weekend (before his team lost at home against an East team, natch):
    "We want national sponsors, we want national appeal. If that’s the case, then, the formula, in my mind, would be the first-place teams get a bye. The next four teams make the playoffs. So you could have the second- and third-place team in either division host a playoff game. We’re still in a society where we reward excellence, right?" (Postmedia, Oct. 7)
    So in that scenario, the East's first-place team with a losing record still has the more direct route to the Grey Cup. Still not fair, but fairer. The division semifinals, semantically, become cross-over quarter-finals. Winnipeg (second-best overall record) would host a game against the sixth overall team, which is currently the B.C. Lions. The fourth seed would host the fifth seed.

    If the playoffs were beginning today, these would be the matchups:

    Cross-over playoffs:
    (6) B.C. at (3) Winnipeg
    (5) Edmonton at (4) Saskatchewan

    East final:
    Highest remaining seed at (2) Toronto
    Lowest remaining seed at (1) Calgary

    The league has market placement at either end of the country on the penultimate Sunday of the season — everyone happy, or at least, less upset. 
  3. Bridge to the CFL's lost generation. Should it be a bigger deal that Brandon Bridge of Mississauga, Ontario, is playing quarterback, and playing quarterback well, for the playoff-bound Saskatchewan Roughriders?

    It is still early in game for the 25-year-old quarterback's career, and Bridge he has tried only 139 passes in the CFL over nearly three seasons. Those are not disclaimers, though, since that is still farther than any Canadian QB has advanced in the last quarter-century, since Guilio Caravatta and Larry Jusdanis only made token late-season starts in the mid-1990s. So, absolutely, the story was under-reported last weekend after Bridge led Saskatchewan to a win against Toronto.
    Then again, the sport media consumer really needed that 101st take on Auston Matthews.

    The problem with marketing Bridge, apart from the obvious fact it will not happen until he is an anointed No. 1 starter (Because Football), might not lie with the CFL. It's us; while a healthy Canadian skepticism is good, this is where it becomes pound-foolish. One can mentally picture the knees jerking: if he's so good, then why isn't he in the NFL, huh? Canadians are still generally suspect of anyone trying to achieve success on their terms in Canada. Never mind that a Canadian has to be demonstrably better than, literally and rhetorically, 100 available Americans to be a ratio-breaker at quarterback or running back.

    However, the influence any league needs to cultivate is not that subset of the population. It's with children getting into sports who are looking for athletes they can identify with. The problem is, with cord-cutting and market fragmentation and a cratering traditional media, the means to connect a uniquely Canadian sports hero with the seven-year-old kids of 2017 is broken.|

    Finally, some university sports talk ...
  4. Has the "Western has thrown a lot of interceptions" well run dry? Hell to the nah! Like the lightbulb being screwed in by any number of psychiatrists, the Mustangs have to want to change their ways in the passing phase. Coach Greg Marshall is working on that after three seasons in a row of failing to advance past the Yates Cup. The Ontario teams which have broken through the Laval force-field in this century — 2005 Laurier (who didn't have to play Laval), 2009 Queen's and 2011 McMaster — all had aerial-circus capability.

    As for the progress of those initiatives, Western has thrown an OUA-most nine interceptions. That is glaring for a team that makes opponents honour the run so much. At this point, it just doesn't matter since Western also leads OUA in points, yards and rushing (46, 595 and 289 per game, rounded off), as well as yards per rush at 7.4 a tote.

    The Mustangs are ninth in red-zone conversions at 51 per cent and eighth in touchdown/interception ratio (10-9). Against Laval or Montréal in November, a team probably has to be at 75 per cent or greater at finishing off drives with touchdowns instead of field goals. Short fields for the opponent created by interceptions are also killers.

    That being said, the Mustangs are the class of Ontario and probably have the highest odds of anyone at playing in Vanier Cup, due to the semifinal rotation. (Prove me wrong, rest of OUA and AUS, prove me wrong.) Whom is fooling whom?
  5. Waterloo is all but buried, but ones comes to praise them. While Waterloo has regressed, it has converted more third-down gambles (19 on 41 tries) than all but three other OUA teams have attempted. Some of that is dictated by game circumstances, but the Warriors' taking the nothing-to-lose approach is a huge contrast to another longtime straggler, York, being 1-for-10 all season. Who cares enough about York football to second-guess a coach for giving his offence more opportunities?
  6. You could see why this had to end, clearly. Never mind sharing memories of one's own school-days. This is what the atmosphere was like at a Queen's Homecoming football game, at the second iteration of Richardson Stadium, as recently as three years ago.

    The stadium will be full, but with only 2,000 free student tickets distributed, the atmosphere and energy cannot be what it was at the old Richardson Stadium, where admission was first-come, first-served.

    Having that dedicated student side opposite the main grandstand created a tremendous back-and-forth between the contemporary students and the rest of the Queen's and Kingston community. The former had to live up to the image, even if it didn't match the reality of most football Saturdays, and the latter got to have a chuckle and remember that they were young once, too.

    That grandstand at a homecoming game, or when Queen's went on a playoff run — did I just date myself — also represented a notion that's fallen out of fashion in the contemporary university, the idea that you got to circulate among people who were fundamentally different from you. I'm idealizing it, of course, but people who had nothing in common beyond attending Queen's (and yes, I'm aware of the university's reputation for not exactly reflecting the polyglot of Canada) were brought together, for the cost of nothing more than a 10-minute walk to the a stadium and a flash of their student card. A lot of the first world's problems stem from excessive self-sorting, but here the upper-middle-class city kid in commerce and the rural kid majoring in history could understand each other a little more. I didn't always feel welcome or accepted at Queen's, but that was one place that was the exception.
  7. I got your "force majeure" right here! Please keep a Spockian eyebrow cocked for how the RSEQ rules next week on appeals of the recent Montréal-Concordia cancellation. Each school has appealed the decision to call off the game due to a gastroenteritis outbreak among U de M supporters, with Sherbrooke. (The best finish the Vert et Or can achieve is 3-5, but if Concordia finishes 3-4 it will be considered the higher-placed team.)

    What remedy could be applied at this stage of the game is unclear. Montréal, if it is to be taken at its word, did not have enough players to field a credible team. But the junior hockey meme "because it's the Q" could come into play. 
  8. Mystery meet-up. Unless you're plugged into both teams or don't have social anxiety that makes it impossible to pick up a phone and ask, you don't know who will quarterback Guelph on Saturday or line up on "Laurier's banged-up defence." That is great for the element of surprise, but a potential fan would love to know whether Guelph QB James Roberts is game-ready for the Golden Hawks.

    The CFL posts PDFs of team depth charts on the day before a game. It would not be that hard for a university league to do the same.
  9. Imagine the ratings if everyone who tweeted about Dart Guy getting a gig listened to TSN Radio. Yours truly touched a nerve on Wednesday.
    It was confrontational and sensational, and of course we are just talking about empty-calories entertainment, but I stand by it. That was for all the hard-working, creative people  shut out of a field that is hemorrhaging jobs and has a corporate-mandated monotone sameness to it all. Did the format really need another  Hockey Bro from southern Ontario's near hinterlands?
  10. Does U Sports hockey need a pre-season showcase weekend? It does seem like the university hockey season has a soft opening. It would do a lot for university puck's profile, both on the men's and women's side, to have a weekend where league games are played on a single site, similar to events held by the USHL and some Junior A leagues.

    It's all about taking the little-known league to the people, for lack of a less cliché way to put it. The fringe benefit would be that it would be a heat check to see whether a city and university can drum up enough spectator support, in order to host a future nationals. Just a thought.
  11. Most important sports writing of the week. Definitely Dave Lozo on the inherent limitations of symbolic gestures at sports events after terrible events.

    The mic drop:

    It's dangerously unhealthy that nearly 60 people were murdered by a man with an automatic assault rifle and what we're talking about a little more than a week later is how it helped create momentum in a stupid, meaningless sports game. For instance:

    "That was unbelievable for us," said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant. "Tonight was about honoring and remembering the victims. So we came out real strong. To get those four goals was unbelievable."
    The most apt cherry-picked contrast is likely the response in England after the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989, which killed 96 people. That led to the commission of the Taylor Report and a huge upgrade in safety standards in soccer stadiums. It took time and thoroughness, but the Now Is Not The Time crowd was rightly shouted down.
  12. Not sticking to sports; or, how I am learning to take wins where I can get them. My subway read over the last week was Franklin Foer's 2004 book How Soccer Explains The World, which turned out to be topical. One of the final chapters explored how soccer has been dragged into the blue/red culture wars in the United States.

    But one observation of Foer's that has stuck is that it's hard to be a liberal and find a soccer team aligned with one's political sensibilities. That is probably true for all sports. After all, what sports give us — clear, unambiguous win-or-lose outcomes; emotions and feelings overriding common sense; vicariously projecting social Darwinism on to genetically superior people (let's be honest), appeal to conservatives and rightists.

    But it might actual be the mark of a Big Boy Sport that athletes expressing themselves is respected:

    I do get challenged by friends, questions along the lines of, "How can you be progressive and like football?" The easy answer is that human beings are complex and self-contradicting, period, full stop. The larger perspective is that despite all the times I get a "stick to sports!" Twitter response, sports-liking lends itself to a healthy form of code-switching and getting to meet "someone who differs from us in (a) fundamental way."

    (Some of this perspective is informed by an April 2016 essay by Noah Gittell in The Guardian about the largely unseen but brilliant bro-comedy Everybody Wants Some!!, the filmmaker Richard Linklater's  1980-set self-described spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused. The gist of it:

    Linklater’s script drops life lessons into the proceedings, bits of bro-Zen wisdom like “Embrace your inner weird, man!” and “We all take turns being chumps. You just have to accept your chumpification and pass it on.” It’s easy to breeze over these aphorisms, but they dovetail effectively with the film’s political resonance. They ask us to let down our defenses and experience life with an open mind and heart.
    Call it naive to expect that openness in strangers on the internet, but it beats putting up walls.)

    Farther along the same tangent, though, is a reality that what the media calls "left" and "right" really involves a subset who have made moronity a life choice. They get roiled when their political masters say "jump." Opposing an updated sexual education curriculum that includes, gasp, consent education. Getting angry over tax law changes that will never affect anyone in their income bracket. Insisting that constitutionally enshrined rights for the usual suspects (women, racialized people, LGBTQ+) should be re-negotiated, when the majority has moved on. Getting news from Facebook. And so on.

    Circling back, though, while there really isn't a big-league sports team for the centre-left humanist, there is no harm in taking glee when karma throws a wicked curve.

    Exhibit A: One has to laugh like hell at the chain of events with the Dallas Cowboys. Owner Jerry Jones threatens to bench players for participating in inequality protests during the U.S. national anthem ...

    ... and then his team loses its starting running back to a suspension. (There's a union issue involved, but still, it hurts Jerry Jones.)

    It looks good on an owner who goes to the wall to for players who commit intimate partner violence, but rolls over when a demonstration might affect his bottom line. Similarly, one can empathize with fans of the Cleveland baseball team after their season ended so abruptly, but it looks good on one player who was getting into arguments on Twitter during a game.
Have a great rest of the week.
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