CFL Commissioner’s Thoughts On “Naturalized Canadian” Debate Needs Scrutiny

Written By Andrew Bucholtz on April 25, 2022
Canadian flag painted on man's face

While it’s now possible to place sports bets in Ontario on CFL teams’ win totals, who will win each division, and who will win the 102nd Grey Cup this fall, the exact rules the league will be playing under when it starts up in June aren’t yet known. That’s because the current collective bargaining agreement between the league and the CFL Players Association’, signed in 2019, expires in May.

Even with that agreement expiring before the 2022 season begins, there doesn’t appear to be a high chance of missed games right now. That’s unlike some past CBA negotiations, particularly the contentious one in 2014.

But what there is a lot of talk about is some proposed changes to some of the CFL’s major rules. The most dramatic idea (going from three downs to four downs) looks to be dead for now following massive levels of fan pushback, but there are other potential changes afoot. And one that’s getting a fair bit of discussion is reworking the “naturalized Canadian” roster rules.

Differing interpretations on what counts as a “naturalized Canadian”

As TSN’s Dave Naylor wrote earlier this month, the “naturalized Canadian” concept (a new definition for an American player in at least his third season with the same team or his fourth season in the CFL overall) was actually brought in during the last CBA in 2019. But it didn’t wind up making a huge impact because of a dispute in interpretation.

As per Naylor, the league believed they’d agreed on the three “naturalized Canadians” on each team counting as regular national players. And thus counting towards the minimums of 22 national players on a roster and seven national starters. Meanwhile the CFLPA believed they’d only agreed to a new status requiring teams to have at least three veteran “naturalized” Americans as part of their American lineup. The CFLPA interpretation wound up prevailing, and was used beginning with the 2020 season (which wound up being canceled due to COVID-19, so the 2021 season was the first time we actually saw it).

CFL Commissioner Ambrosie weighs in

But there’s a good chance that could change in this new CBA. It seems at least likely that the league will make some sort of push for implementing their former interpretation, where “naturalized Canadian” players would count towards the Canadian presence required on rosters. And comments from CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie at a recent road trip stop with fans in Hamilton support that, with Ambrosie arguing there that the lack of nationality-based restrictions in the NHL and NFL suggest they shouldn’t apply in the CFL either.

“People believe that the Canadian players are more than capable enough to compete for jobs in the NHL. I believe that Canadian players are more than capable of competing for jobs in the CFL,” Ambrosie said.

“How do I know that? I know that because now we have roughly 24 Canadian kids playing on NFL rosters, the most in football’s history. Why? Because Canadian players are super talented. We actually need to get away from this feeling that somehow Canadian players are an inferior quality athlete.

“Right now, roughly one out of every 20 U SPORTS players plays in the CFL. What number of American kids play in the NFL? It’s actually one out of every 278 US college players will play in the NFL.

“I don’t think I’ve read a Sports Illustrated article of late where people are criticizing the NFL for its lack of commitment to US college athletes. The best athletes play.”

Scrutinizing Ambrosie’s thoughts and numbers

But those comments fall apart under even mild scrutiny. The NHL comparison is flawed on three levels. For one, Canada has huge participation numbers and elite player infrastructure comparable to the U.S. in hockey, but doesn’t in football. Two, the NHL is the top league of its sport in the world, while the CFL is not; the CFL absolutely can’t go head to head with the NFL in bidding wars for top athletes.  And for three, the NHL is an international league with teams based in both the U.S. and Canada, not a distinctively Canadian league like the CFL.

Meanwhile, the NFL doesn’t need to emphasize players from its schools or its country with rules. That’s where the vast majority of its players naturally come from, and that shows what would happen with no CFL quotas. Twenty-four Canadians on NFL rosters may sound impressive, but that’s with 32 teams and 90-man offseason rosters: that’s 2,880 roster slots, with Canadians making up 0.83% of the league.

Beyond that, Ambrosie’s comments about the numbers of U SPORTS players in the CFL and NCAA players in the NFL don’t quite fit either. It isn’t clear where Ambrosie pulled the 1 in 278 number NCAA from, but it doesn’t appear to line up with the NCAA’s own data. That page has data based on the 2018-19 NCAA season and the 2019 NFL draft, with 73,712 NCAA football participants that year.

Deeper dive into NCAA data

If you divide those NCAA participants by 254 NFL draft picks in 2019, you’d get one in every 290, but that doesn’t reflect that only some of those players are draft-eligible in any particular year. That page cites 16,380 as an approximate draft-eligible total, which would be one in 65.

The actual odds of a Division I FBS player signing a NFL contract are higher still. That  participants number covers all NCAA divisions: Division I FBS, Division I FCS, Division II, and Division III. But 238 of the 254 draft picks were from Division I FBS, and that page estimates that 6.8 percent of eligible Division I FBS players were drafted. That would be one in 15, higher than the “one in 20” (five percent) figure Ambrosie cites for U SPORTS to the CFL. And that’s before you count the numbers of players who sign with the NFL as undrafted free agents.

And Division I FBS is a much better comparison to U SPORTS than “the entirety of NCAA football.” U SPORTS is one national top league that’s producing the majority of the CFL’s Canadian draftees (although far from all of them: the most recent CFL draft last year saw 31 U SPORTS players picked, 57 percent, with the other 23 selections coming from the NCAA), so it’s comparable to the top U.S. college league producing the majority of the NFL’s picks.

Factoring in Canadian university players

It’s quite clear that just playing U SPORTS football doesn’t grant someone a CFL opportunity, and doesn’t do so at a higher rate than playing NCAA Division I FBS football does for NFL opportunities. It’s worth noting, however, that playing U SPORTS football for three years and graduating with a degree now qualifies a player as a full national, regardless of where they were born. So there’s already a “naturalized Canadian” pathway through Canadian university football.

Beyond that, it’s worth discussing why the CFL’s Canadian roster slots and starter slots matter. Any selection of players by coaches and general managers winds up being at least partly based on their own evaluations and their own biases, and if the ratio was instantly wiped out and national status was no longer considered, it seems likely the CFL would be mostly filled with American players. (This is the case with CFL quarterbacks, where nationality isn’t considered; Canadians only get a shot there extremely rarely, although Nathan Rourke and Michael O’Connor in B.C. may help change that.)

And that’s particularly true when it comes to rookies. The high level of resources and competition at top NCAA programs means American players from those backgrounds often make quicker CFL impacts than Canadian players. And that means GMs are often drawn to them. But many of those Canadian players develop into some of the CFL’s biggest stars over time regardless of nationality. They just need time and opportunity to prove themselves, and the ratio helps provide that.

Ambrosie’s comments already getting blowback

At any rate, Ambrosie’s comments here would be truly problematic if taken to the extreme implication of doing away with the ratio altogether. But that’s unlikely to happen, as these comments have already drawn a lot of blowback. What’s more likely to wind up under at least some level of consideration is expanding this “naturalized Canadian” program to a level where one, two, or even all of these three players per team might count for national slots, the way the league wanted them to in the last CBA.

That comes with pros and cons. That kind of expansion would incentivize teams to keep around their own players more rather than turning to free agency, and that would be positive for many fans. But it would damage the ratio and the amount of actual national players involved in the CFL, and thats would be negative for many fans.

And the numbers of Canadians in the NFL and at high-level NCAA programs at the moment actually show that the state of Canadian talent is quite strong relative to where it’s been. It would be a shame to see Canadian players’ participation in the CFL reduced at this point. And while this is just talk for the moment, Ambrosie’s comments sure make it sound like he’ll be pushing to reduce the ratio, whether with “naturalized Canadians” or with other approaches. We’ll see where it goes.

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Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz covered the CFL from 2010-16 for Yahoo Canada Sports. He currently works as a news editor for Awful Announcing.

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