Most football fans in the United States think about the Canadian Football League about as often as George W. Bush ponders atheism. Even Canadians don’t fret excessively about the CFL. In the Maple Leaf pantheon of sports, the CFL ranks somewhere below hockey, curling and flicking Celine Dion CDs for distance. But NFL executives are very aware of the world of Canadian Football. It is viewed, warily, like an outlaw brother-in-law crashing on your couch; something to resent and, in a back-handed way, envy–his freedom mocking your buttoned-down reality.
Lately, the CFL has made tremendous news with word that former Heisman trophy winner, Miami Dolphins All-Pro and ganja-smoking peacenik Ricky Williams may sign to play with the Toronto Argonauts following his one-year suspension for failing his 420th NFL drug test. Williams, remember, quit the NFL two years ago because he was sick and tired of the violence, the injuries and not being able to chill out and smoke some weed when he damn well pleased.
For an NFL ownership that had just approached Jeb Bush about being its new commissioner, this was high treason. Its one thing if you beat your spouse, drive drunk or cave in a bouncer’s face at a strip club. That sends tingles to the owners’ extremities while confirming their own view that players are barely containable beasts. But decrying the very nature of the game was Williams’s unpardonable sin. “I just don’t want to be in this business anymore,” Williams said in a 2004 interview. “I was never strong enough to not play football, but I’m strong enough now. I’ve considered everything about this. Everyone has thrown every possible scenario at me about why I shouldn’t do this, but they’re in denial. I’m happy with my decision.”
The response by Dolphins management was to sue Williams for $8.6 million unless he returned to play. Having earned no money studying holistic medicine during his year off, Williams had little choice but to return. Despite being rusty and clearly depressed about being forcibly compelled to return, he still rushed for 743 yards, splitting time with rookie Ronnie Brown. Now he is on the outs again, and Canada is calling. The Dolphins are torn about what to do, not wanting to just lose Williams for a year, fearful he’ll end up on an ashram in Kashmir, but also not wanting to send him to Canada, a place without mandatory drug testing and an atmosphere much friendlier to players who don’t conform to the jackboot march of the NFL.
Canadian football specializes in second chances. A recent article in the New York Times showed the CFL to be one part Alcatraz, one part Lourdes: a place for dangerous men to dip their game in healing waters and breathe free. One player profiled was former Jacksonville Jaguars first-round pick wide receiver R. Jay Soward. “[Without the CFL] I’d probably be working a warehouse job, or trying to go back to school to get my degree, or trying to do some real estate, or hustling, scamming, something illegal. Probably just throwing away my life,” he said. After failing the NFL’s drug tests, Soward became a heavy drinker, dulling the pain of failure. Now he earns $50,000 a year for the Argonauts and is profoundly grateful for the opportunity to not be labeled pariah and failure. “It gives me a reason to get up every morning, not just turn to the bottle or smoke weed all day, just throw away my life,” he said. “It gives me some stability in my life, and something to work toward and look forward to. It makes me realize I am a blessed person to have the attributes I do have.”
The Argonauts also have on the roster receiver Robert Baker, who spent ten months in a maximum-security prison for distributing and trafficking cocaine. “Ricky deserves a second chance, a third chance,” Baker, who played parts of five seasons in the NFL after being released from prison, told the Times. “As long as you’re breathing, you deserve a chance. He ain’t killed nobody yet. He hasn’t taken life, so he deserves a chance.”
This concept of the second chance exposes the NFL’s deeply reactionary hypocrisy. The NFL shoots players up with all kinds of pain killers and turns the other way when illegal drugs that promise increased aggression and muscle mass are consumed. But the same men turn into trembling Jimmy Swaggarts when the drug tests turn bad. There is a proud tradition in the CFL of shaming the NFL establishment’s Cro-Magnon views of the world. Today it is the politics of drugs. In the past, it was the question of racism. As Canadian freelance journalist Stephen LaRose wrote:
“In the 1950s, the Edmonton Eskimos signed black players such as John Bright and Rollie Miles, integral part of the offensive juggernaut that won five straight Grey Cups (the CFL championship trophy) in the 1950s. The Esks did this when most pro football teams, on either side of the border, refused to sign black players… In the late 1970s, it was black quarterbacks. When NFL coaches and general managers were trying to convert black quarterbacks to other, less ‘skilled’ positions, teams such as the Argos, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and the Eskimos signed black quarterbacks to play…quarterback. The most notable was Washington alumnus Warren Moon, the 1978 Rose Bowl MVP who went undrafted by the NFL. He went to Edmonton because, unlike the NFL, the Esks were more interested in his arm, his brains and his heart than his skin color…. It’s almost impossible to imagine the careers of Dante Culpepper, Steve McNair and Vince Young without Moon breaking their trail.”
Here’s hoping that Ricky Williams gets to experience the air up there in the Great White North. The money may not be as sweet, but you won’t be treated like a piece of indentured equipment. And if you decide to quit, to take a break from the violence and pain, instead of suing you, they may just throw you a party. For all a player loses suiting up in Canada–and for all the risks involved–there is the promise of regaining a measure of human dignity: and that basic reality is what makes the NFL squirm.