The CFL's bold moves this week to preserve player safety have been widely commended by many, but privately, others within the league wonder if it will affect players' preparations for games or even make them less safe.
New CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie stood alongside the CFL Players' Association to say that all full-contact padded practices after training camp are eliminated, effective immediately. The season will also be extended to 21 weeks next year to give every team a third bye week. Both moves were made to reduce players' risk of injury.
Many in support of the changes eagerly talked to reporters or took to social media to praise the CFL and the CFLPA for their co-operation and for limiting players' exposure to contact.
The changes come at a time when player safety and the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma in football have again made headlines. Researchers at Boston University recently published results of a study, which found 110 of 111 brains of deceased former football players they examined showed signs of CTE, a disease caused by repeated blows to the head.
Because a few CFL teams rarely practise in pads anyway, some players and executives say the changes are no big deal. Others gave their criticisms anonymously. Still, others declined interview requests, saying they're conflicted – they want to stand by the league and the CFLPA, but they worry that removing the opportunities to practise contact could mean their skills deteriorate and therefore make the game less safe.
In most pro football practices today, players wear shorts, cleats, mesh jerseys and helmets, and they simulate contact without hitting one another. They already take precautions to keep guys off the injured list. They go through their motions at half-speed with limited force. They use tackling dummies, dive at soft rolling doughnut-shaped tackling wheels, or evade coaches who are swatting at them with large pads on their arms.
Before this week, CFL teams could hold a total of 17 padded practices after training camp – days when players could wear shoulder pads and be more physical with one another. Often it was a day for refining technique or doing things with a little more speed and force, especially for linemen and linebackers. Those practices are now gone during the season and full contact is reserved for games.
"It's strange I guess, and it will change things for sure," said Edmonton Eskimos offensive lineman Justin Sorenson. "In just helmets you can't go live with full contact. So it will take a lot of wear and tear off the body, but it may decrease your preparation a little bit, too."
Some questioned how effectively teams will be able to teach and regularly practise contact in-season without shoulder pads and wondered if manoeuvres such as line play may deteriorate. They wondered how things such as pass rushing and blitz drills can safely be simulated. They projected it may stunt development of those who don't get into games yet – young players and those on practice rosters. Some argued that keeping a player out of padded full-contact practice reduces his risk of injury, with others pointing out it may also decrease his endurance for game day, which may also be unsafe.
"Well, instead of crying over spilled milk, we have to find ways to adapt," said Toronto Argonauts defensive lineman Victor Butler, the league's co-leader in sacks who is returning to action this week after six weeks out with a lower-body injury. "Think back to when helmet-to-helmet rules were changed, or horse-collar tackles. My favourite tackle used to be the horse-collar – I used to let guys get in front of me just so I could horse-collar them. When the rules changed, I had to adapt or I wasn't going to be playing ball no more. The younger generation will have more time to adapt and figure out from Pop Warner to high school to college how to hone your tackling and physicality in different ways."
Not having to wear pads in practice pleases Argos receiver S.J. Green, but he wondered how it will affect some of his teammates.
"No one likes putting on pads for practice, and for players at skilled positions, we almost never take contact in practice anyway," Green said. "But I think it will hurt the linemen and linebackers maybe, because they won't be able to get in some of their usual work during the week. From that perspective it could be a downfall. Also, having pads on in practice does something for your fitness – it adds a few pounds so it takes more energy."
Argos coach Marc Trestman estimated his team was already practising without pads about 90 per cent of the time. BC Lions coach and general manager Wally Buono said it won't make much of a difference for his team, reasoning there has been a steady decline in padded practices in recent years, and now the Lions typically only have about 11 padded practices each season.
"The players' concern has been safety, and this is another step in indicating that. Will there be good and bad with this? Yes, football is a contact sport and sometimes the only way to get better is to simulate the speed and contact of a game," Buono said. "I'm not saying it's perfect. As a coach, I can live with it. As an administrator, the thing I'm most pleased about is the dialogue between the league and the CFLPA. Since Randy has become commissioner, the communication has really improved. For them to come to a consensus on player safety is a big positive."
Buono projected the NFL will be watching the CFL on this front. In the NFL, teams still allow 11 padded practices over the first 11 weeks of the season and a maximum of one per week. After that, teams can have three more for a total of 14 on the year.
"A great example of the bold thinking we need to address player-safety issues," tweeted Peter Dyakowski, an offensive lineman with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. "CFL and CFLPA are now leaders in North American sports."
"If this stops one guy from getting dementia or brain disease later in life, then I think it's the right thing to do," said defensive back Matt Black, who is a CFLPA player rep for the Argonauts. "We play football for such a short period of time. Guys here aren't making millions of dollars in the CFL and they're going to have to do other jobs after they're done playing here. It's easy to get caught up in the passion we all have for football and everyone has to take a step back and realize that we all need to leave this game eventually, and we should leave whole. I know this will be a sticking point for some people, transition is never easy, but I think this is for the best."
As for adding a week to the 18-game season, no one argues the third bye week will provide players extra rest and recuperation time, and get rid of an estimated two-thirds of short turnarounds. The issues there are mostly logistical, such as how and where to implement the extra week into the schedule, and how to schedule the CFL draft after the NFL draft, and still have enough time for minicamps and training camps before the season. Player safety has taken priority.
"I think the game will evolve," Black said. "Coaches will find new ways to teach and practise physicality – whether it's through dummies or pads or whatever. The creativity will be good and the players will get more rest on our bodies. I'm not sure any of us knows how we're going to do that just yet, but I'm sure everything will be fine. In a year or two this will be just a distant memory."