When it comes to Canadian Football League fans, something that they seem to be as passionate about as sticking to three downs is the ratio. It is the system based on nationalities that the CFL uses to compile a team’s roster.
Although it wasn’t called such then, the ratio had its origins way back in 1935 when the Winnipeg Football Club won the Grey Cup with seven Americans on its roster. After that, the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU), which ran the game in those days, instituted a residency rule that limited teams to five ‘import’ players.
By 1954 that had been increased to nine and was eventually lifted to 16 by 1956 when teams formed the Canadian Football Council (CFC), which preceded the establishment of the CFL in 1958.
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The ratio as we know it today has been tweaked several times in the game’s modern history to the point where nowadays teams may dress active rosters of 46 players, split this way:
- Maximum of 2 QBs (no designation)
- Maximum of 20 American players (4 of whom must be identified as designated Americans)
- Minimum of 21 National (Canadian) players
- Minimum of 2 Global players
- Maximum of 1 Reserve player
Each team has to start seven National players and the four designated American players can play on special teams or replace an American starter, but they cannot start a game.
The general consensus among fans seems to be that if the ratio didn’t exist, American coaches, who outnumber Canadians, would more than likely opt for American players ahead of Canadians on their rosters almost every time. Whether or not that’s a realistic assumption, the ratio is seen as a way to protect the jobs of Canadian players.
In his State of the League address in early December, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said, “everything is on the table,” for his offseason discussions with the board of governors. He said the league will look at all aspects of the game, so it would be reasonable to assume that the ratio could come under consideration.
Canadian Football Hall of Fame quarterback Frank Cosentino told 13th Man Sports the rule is an attempt to ensure that Canadian talent will be included in the playing of the game.
“It’s a question of the output of Canadian student/athletes football talent from 27 (U Sports) universities,” said the 10-year CFL veteran.
“It is not necessarily that they are inferior to the American talent, but the USA has thousands of universities who graduate many more athlete/students. The NFL is the league which Americans would prefer to play in and there are thousands more who would be available for the CFL.”
“Critics would say that the game should be wide open to whoever can make the team while there are others who want to keep Canadian talent improving every year.”
Indeed, it is a thorny issue because, on the one hand, there are those who believe that Canadians should make up the majority of players in the CFL because it is Canada’s unique game, but on the other, there’s a feeling that players shouldn’t get a spot on a roster based solely on their passport.
A suggestion was made earlier this year that perhaps the number of Canadian starters could be reduced from seven to five, although that idea was met with howling protests right across the country and was quickly shelved.
President of Football Canada, Jim Mullin is of the opinion that things should actually be the other way around and that there should be more Canadian starters in the CFL.
“Our most exciting time of offensive football occurred in the 1990s when we had 10 starters,” he said. “There were matches and mismatches all over the field that created lots of opportunities. So, taking the Canadian player out of the Canadian Football League would be detrimental to the sport.”
“Is it a coincidence that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with an almost exclusively Canadian front office staff and a Canadian head coach, with the key part of their offence being a Canadian running back, have become the most dominant team in the country?”
“Those people know the culture, know the system, know the game, and know what it takes to win. That doesn’t mean the contributions that Americans bring aren’t important. They’re completely critical to the CFL.”
Mullin said, unfortunately, a lot of the discussion around Canadian players is framed in the idea that they are somehow inferior to American players, which he said is not true. He said the discussion from a business perspective is because of the ratio and the depth of player supply, CFL teams pay more for quality Canadian players.
“If the CFL does away with the ratio, it would have less to do with the quality of Canadian players and more to do with managing their salary cap, and I think that’s been lost in the discussion over the last couple of years,” he added. “If you want to find the true answer on why decisions are made, follow the money.”
And what about from the perspective of the CFL’s nine teams, how do they feel about having to constantly juggle their rosters? After all, just about everyone from the front office to the assistant coaches is involved in the process in some way.
Scouting Director with the Toronto Argonauts, Vince Magri said he thinks the Canadian ratio is good for the game and good for the league.
“As has been pointed out before, it gives our young football players in this country from grassroots all the way up to U Sports something to aspire to, which can keep them engaged not just during their playing days, but long after, hopefully keeping their friends and families engaged as well,” he said.
“Plus, as we’ve seen with some of the most iconic players in the history of the league, it isn’t always a talent difference, sometimes it’s been a lack of development and opportunity for the Canadian players, and if we take away the opportunity and stunt the development, who knows where some of the great Canadian players in our league would be.”
So, apart from potentially considering the issue of downs, the ratio may just be the next most important item on the agenda for Ambrosie and the governors during their offseason discussions.
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