CFL commissioner not ready to link concussions with brain disease

First-year CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie says he needs more time to meet with experts and examine the connections between football-related concussions and degenerative brain disease.

“It is a very complicated subject and, for a guy that played nine seasons in the league, it couldn’t be any more personal and any more important to anyone to understand what’s happening on this issue,” Ambrosie said during an interview Friday with Matt Galloway on CBC’s Metro Morning.

“I have made a promise and a pledge to myself and the players who I’ve played with, who are lifetime friends, that I will study and meet and ask questions and until I’m done that I’m not going to reach a conclusion.”

The CFL and CFL Players’ Association announced Wednesday that, effective immediately, full-contact padded practices will be discontinued during the regular season. And next year, teams will get an extra bye week to help reduce the risk of player injury.

Ambrosie said the focus in making that decision was not on reducing concussions specifically, but rather on improving general player safety.

“I’m convinced this is the right thing to do and I’m proud we did it,” he said. “This announcement we made wasn’t in any way connected to concussions. It was connected to doing what’s best for player safety.”

‘A very tough game to play’

Ambrosie’s predecessor, Jeffrey Orridge, came under heavy scrutiny during Grey Cup week last season when he refused to admit a link between football-related concussions and degenerative brain disease.

“Last I heard, it’s still a subject of debate in the medical and scientific community,” Orridge told reporters at his state-of-the-league address in November 2016. “The league’s position is that there is no conclusive evidence at this point. And as I said, we continue to work with them and monitor the progress that they’re making in terms of getting a greater understanding of whether or not there is a linkage.”

In contrast, an NFL official admitted last March to a link between football and neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

During his playing career, Ambrosie was an offensive lineman with Calgary, Toronto and Edmonton, winning a Grey Cup in his final season with the Eskimos in 1993. He also served two years as secretary of the CFL Players’ Association.

He said Friday that, when he became commissioner, one of the most important aspects of the game he decided to focus on was player safety. 

“I spent nine years playing in the CFL. It’s a wonderful game and I loved every season. But it’s a very tough game to play physically on the body,” Ambrosie said.

But when pressed on whether or not he would acknowledge a link between concussions and degenerative brain disease, he provided this answer: “I’m not trying to be disingenuous. I said at the time I was going to pursue a thorough, thoughtful investigation. I can’t reach a conclusion until then and there’s a lot more work to be done,” Ambrosie said.

“It would be irresponsible, and I don’t think anyone in a position of responsibility should give an answer just because someone wants it.”

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