Sports

CFL ditches full-contact practices, adds extra bye week

Moves being made to help reduce risk of injury.

Calgary Stampeders quarterbacks Bo Levi Mitchell (left) and Andrew Buckley (centre) listen to head coach Dave Dickenson at practice for the 104th Grey Cup in Toronto on Friday, November 25, 2016. The CFL is eliminating full-contact padded practices during the season and is extending its schedule to 21 weeks to help reduce the risk of injury.

Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press File

Calgary Stampeders quarterbacks Bo Levi Mitchell (left) and Andrew Buckley (centre) listen to head coach Dave Dickenson at practice for the 104th Grey Cup in Toronto on Friday, November 25, 2016. The CFL is eliminating full-contact padded practices during the season and is extending its schedule to 21 weeks to help reduce the risk of injury.

Less hitting, more recovery.

Healthier players, better football.

On Wednesday afternoon, the CFL and its players’ union announced an immediate ban on full-contact, padded practices during the regular season.

And starting next season, the league will spread its 18 regular-season games over 21 weeks, up from the current 20. The new arrangement will give each team three bye weeks instead of two, and together the measures aim to reduce injuries and boost the league’s quality of play.

“Those tight turnaround games are very hard on the players and very hard on their bodies,” CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said during a live Twitter broadcast announcing the joint agreement. “What we want to do is keep our players healthy and keep them on the field, performing.”

The agreement comes at the end of a summer that has seen player safety, and the long-term health effects of repeated head trauma, re-emerge as a sub-plot to on-field action at several levels of the sport.

In late July, researchers at Boston University published the results of a study finding that 110 of the 111 brains of deceased former football players they examined showed signs of CTE, a degenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that states across the U.S. had seen declining enrolment in youth and high school football, thanks to demographic changes and parents’ concerns about the sport’s danger.

And this past January, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell drew widespread derision when he declared that the league’s Thursday night games produced better quality “by almost every barometer.” Since adding regular Thursday matchups to the schedule, the league has endured criticism that the arrangement forces overworked, under-recovered players back into action prematurely.

Argos defensive back Matt Black recognizes the sport is fast-paced and violent, but the 32-year-old Toronto native says the agreement between the league and the union helps mitigate the short- and long-term health effects of a lengthy football career. While concussions attract the most attention, Black points out the repeated lower-level trauma absorbed week-in and week-out is just as harmful.

“The more hits we can (avoid) the better it is for (players’) long-term health, and their longevity outside of football,” said Black, a team players’ association rep. “It’s the cumulative hits. That’s what the science is saying. Similar to boxers. They get hit and they get hit, and it’s the consistency of that. When you have padded practices and you’re bucking heads, your brain’s never getting a chance to rest.”

Wednesday’s ruling doesn’t place a complete restriction on hitting in practice. Teams are still permitted fully-padded practices during training camp, but must discontinue them when the regular season begins.

Argos head coach Marc Trestman says most seasons, he phases out padded practices anyway, and that late in the year his teams rarely hit in practice.

But while players might welcome the extra recovery time, Trestman says a coach’s challenge will be to keep players sharp for full-contact game days without using an occasional late-season padded practice to prime them.

“We promote player safety in practice, but players play the game in pads,” Trestman said. “Player safety with pads in practice is not an issue for us because we know how to control our tempo and get the things done.”

Players, meanwhile, welcome a third bye week. The schedule tweak helps teams avoid the busy stretches that complicate every CFL team’s season. In a 10-day stretch between July 24 and Aug. 3, the Argos played three games, winning the first before losing the final pair.

For 37-year-old starting quarterback Ricky Ray, a less compressed schedule means healthier players and better games.

“You’ve got less chance to recover between games and your body definitely feels it a little bit more,” Ray said. “Normally you’re pretty sore one, two, three days after a game. If you’re already trying to get lined up and play another game in that short period it just gives your body less time to recover.”

Ambrosie says the amended schedule will eliminate two-thirds of games played on fewer than six days’ rest, but that stadium access issues prevent the league from avoiding short-turnaround games completely.

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