By Perry Lefko

Player safety has never been more important for the Canadian Football League Players Association (CFLPA), in particular with the growing discussions throughout sports about head injuries, specifically concussions.

The CFLPA, which moved its head office to Mississauga in 2017 after years of operating out of an office in Stoney Creek, addressed the issue during a “State Of The Union” leading up to the Grey Cup. Both executive director Brian Ramsay and president Jeff Keeping were asked about concussions.

“Brian and I are definitely not doctors or scientists, but when we look at this and talk about player safety we recognize hitting your head any amount of times repetitively isn’t good for you,” Keeping said. “What we’re looking at and will continue to look on is any measures we can take to make the game safer. We understand the sport is a collision game and we want to have an exciting game, but at the same time if there’s opportunities to reduce risk we want to do that.”

Ramsay echoed those thoughts.

“Our focus is solely on having an exciting, great product and healthy players, not one or the other,” he said. “We know that a head injury is no different than any other injury and when they are in those collisions they are exposed to that risk. We are going to continue to try to mitigate those risks. If there’s places where we can make moves to continue to have a great, exciting game but also to mitigate risk for our players we think that’s great for all our stakeholders – our players, our fans, team management. I think it’s something we all have a responsibility to work towards.”

Ramsay said conversations with the CFL head office will continue throughout the off-season. Midway into the 2017 season, the CFLPA and CFL announced that practices in pads would be eliminated. The plan is to eliminate padded practices after training camp next season.

“We need to continue to have conversations,” Ramsay said. “It doesn’t stop with what was accomplished this season. We want to be leaders, and as professional athletes in this country we have a responsibility to do that. We want more kids playing football and for enrolment to go up because of all the positive benefits. At the same time the game needs to continue to evolve and this move of going to no-padded practices was not a finished point, it was a starting point.”

The CFLPA has gone to workers’ compensation branches in various provinces.

“Ultimately we’re trying to find the solution,” Ramsay said. “We know there’s a risk of injury in this sport and we’re trying to find a solution that would best protect and service the membership.”

Keeping wouldn’t comment on specific litigation involving any members, specifically former player Arland Bruce III, who is suing the CFL claiming he sustained “permanent and disabling” repetitive head trauma in his 13-year career. He has had the matter dismissed twice in B.C. court and has gone to the Supreme Court of Canada to allow his lawsuit to proceed. Bruce claims he is suffering from post-concussive symptoms.

“It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to continue to push and advocate on behalf of the players’ safety because every single one of our players will become alumni,” Keeping said. “The better job we can continue to do in making the game safer and having our players taken care of and rehabilitated will allow them to move into that next phase of being a healthier alumni member.”

The CFLPA and the CFL are going into the final year of their collective bargaining agreement. There are matters that the two sides will bargain, but there are also issues that could be addressed before the agreement expires.

Ramsay said the CFLPA moved to Mississauga in conjunction with the structural changes put in place in 2016 giving him and Keeping their current roles. The CFLPA has an office in the Orlando Corporation building on Airport Road that allows the executive and players close access for flying to and from meetings.

Ramsay is based in British Columbia. Keeping is in Toronto. The CFLPA has team representatives from all nine teams.

“We were looking with our structural changes to be as efficient as possible when it comes to anticipating meetings with the Canadian Football League head office,” Ramsay said. “As our executive and reps are spread out, it makes sense to be close to the airport. Mississauga has everything – transit, getting to downtown is easy. We’re sort of central in southern Ontario.”

The CFL head office is based in downtown Toronto in a spacious office to accommodate its staff of about 30 employees. By comparison, the CFLPA has only a few employees.

“We’re relatively small shop, but we represent just under 600 members across Canada,” Ramsay said. “It’s the voice and the protection for the active players in the CFL. Our job is sometimes public and a lot of times we’re working behind the scenes on behalf of the players. It’s never going to be the need to have a large factory type footprint. We’re strategically structured across the country with our central home base in Mississauga.”

Photo: Canadian Football League Players Association executive director Brian Ramsay

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