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  • Reeve Batstone

Argonauts' Leaders in Social Change: From Adversity to Diversity

The CFL makes much of its Diversity is Strength slogan. This is as important for football teams as is an investment strategy for retirement.

The CFL has been justifiably proud of the track record of its teams in giving African American quarterbacks an opportunity when their home country’s professional league would not. The Argonauts have played a major role in this progression both on and off the field.

Most Canadian football fans know that the first African American to play quarterback, professionally, was Bernie Custis with the Hamilton Tiger Cats in 1951. While it would be nice to think that this was a result of an intentional league wide principled stand against racism this would be misleading. It was largely a consequence of Canadians being more tolerant towards Black quarterbacks than Americans, and less pushback against teams from their communities for playing them. Given that the CFL is the quintessential “money ball’ league, that is finding hidden gems that fly under the radar of NFL scouts, providing opportunity to Black quarterbacks was a competitive advantage for any team trying to sign the best available pivot. This held true in Canada until the 1980s and Warren Moon’s departure from Edmonton to the Houston Oilers.

The golden age of African American quarterbacks playing in Canada was surely the 1970s, beginning with Chuck Ealey’s arrival in 1972, winning rookie of the year and the Grey Cup in his first season. He was followed by the likes of Jimmy Jones, Condredge Holloway, and Matthew Reed before Warren Moon left for the NFL in 1983. Since Moon’s success Black quarterbacks have been afforded opportunity to compete on a more level playing field in the NFL. This combined with the expansion in the number of NFL teams, increased dress rosters from 40 to 53, much larger practice rosters and monstrous salary increases have crushed this race based competitive advantage for CFL teams. Consequently, an additional source of competent quarterbacks and developmental program is sorely needed by the CFL.

So, what role did the Argos play in providing opportunities for African Americans? It is now a matter of historical record. In 1976 the Argos were the first team in professional football to feature both a starting and back up quarterback who were Black. Chuck Ealey and Matthew Reed were the first to do this under head coach Russ Jackson. The following year, Leo Cahill extended this tandem. The Argonauts followed this up with another first four years later when NFL hall of famer, Willie Wood, was hired as head coach, making history as the first African American to do this in Canadian football.

In 2001, Michael “Pinball” Clemons became the first African American appointed President of, not only the Argos but, any professional football team. Clemons was also the first Black head coach to win a CFL or NFL championship, winning the Grey Cup with the Argos in 2004.

Clemons is Argos, if not Canadian football royalty. The Argos fan base respects, admires and reveres him which may be why they have, so far, waited quietly to see the hidden genius emerge from the hiring of position coach Ryan Dinwiddie as Head coach. They desperately want to see what Pinball sees. It was perplexing to see Dinwiddie leapfrog so many well qualified coordinators like Barron Miles, Mark Washington, Bob Dyce and Mark Killam. By season’s end Jordan Maksymic and Ryan Phillips will join this list. In a league where two thirds of the teams make the playoffs the jury is still out on Coach Dinwiddie.

Nowadays, the issues of equity, diversity and inclusivity are top hiring priorities across our society. This is as true in football as anywhere else and the CFL deserves kudos for establishing its own diversity and inclusion program, however, it doesn’t go far enough. Ironically, the last bastion of institutionalized discrimination in Canadian football has been prejudice against Canadian quarterbacks.

While Nathan Rourke and Tre Ford may be breaking that barrier in real time, some will remember former Western quarterback, Jamie Bone, who was awarded $10,000, in 1980, by the Ontario Human Rights Commission after the Ti-Cats cut him and he challenged the league’s designated import rule. The Commission found it discriminated against Canadians. Bone subsequently went to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys but never attended another CFL training camp. A year later, former Varsity Blues QB, Dan Feraday, was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals but not given any developmental time in the CFL. The list of stellar Canadian quarterbacks given short shrift by the CFL is a long one. Some of the excuses offered by coaches and even members of the Canadian media are reminiscent of the trope once used to discredit the potential of Black QBs south of the border. It still haunts the League.

History tells us that it takes at least 2-3 years to develop an American to successfully play quarterback in the CFL. Even the likes of Doug Flutie struggled in his first season. Others who served multi-year apprenticeships include four-time NFL pro bowler Jeff Garcia, Tracy Ham, and the legendary Warren Moon. Hall of famer Danny McManus wasn’t a full-time starter until his sixth year in the CFL. Anthony Calvillo only completed 44% of his passes in his rookie season and did not complete more than 60% until his sixth season in the league!

Former NFL player of the year, Pro bowler and Super Bowl champion, Joe Theismann, threw nine interceptions in two games for the Argos in his second season. In his three-year tenure with the Argos, he tossed seven more interceptions than touchdowns. No Canadian QB was ever allowed to turn the ball over this frequently and remain on a roster, but Theismann was from Notre Dame not Waterloo. A year later three Canadian quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the CFL draft. Two years after two of them were starting DBs in the Argos secondary on their stellar Dirty Dozen defense (Wayne Allison and Barry Finlay). Neither was ever invited to try out for quarterback.

Quintessential back up QB and three-time Grey Cup MVP Sonny Wade threw almost twice as many interceptions (169) as TDs (89) in his career. One of his successors in Montreal, Most Outstanding Canadian, Gerry Dattillio, was an Eastern all- star for the Alouettes in 1980 and then ignominiously replaced by former LA Rams QB Vince Ferragamo the next season. Ferragamo became the biggest bust in CFL history and the franchise went bankrupt. Dattilio faded into obscurity.

Since 1970, sixty-four Canadian quarterbacks have been drafted by the CFL. Only 14 of these have seen the field and made the dress roster of a CFL team as a quarterback but others have been successfully moved to other positions. These include Brad Sinopoli, Mathieu Bertrand, Chris Hardy, Rob Crifo, Bob Cameron, Gerald Kunyk and Peter Stenerson.

It’s all a long way of saying that in these days of unabashed virtue signaling and intense competition for competent quarterbacking, its time the CFL acknowledged its bias, made it right, and established a developmental position for a third quarterback on CFL rosters, and made it a Canadian. Never have the Canadian players been so good and never has the competition for quality American quarterbacks been so fierce. No matter the passport they all require development time to play CFL football well. By the time a Canadian QB graduates from university he has played at least 4, and up to 9, years of Canadian rules football already. That knowledge and experience is invaluable. It’s not so much affirmative action as it just makes good business sense to have that insight and potential in the quarterback room of any Canadian team.

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