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Canadian Football League is way ahead of NFL on diversity issues

League now has only black commissioner in any major sport

African-Americans have come to dominate the National Football League since a “gentleman’s agreement” by white owners ended in 1946. In recent years, black quarterbacks such as Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Carolina’s Cam Newton have become stars in a league that would have shunned them as much for mobility and athleticism as much as their skin color a generation ago.

African-Americans such as Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and others have become head coaches, while others have become offensive and defensive coordinators, and even general managers, as the NFL has embraced racial diversity in the executive ranks.

But despite these accomplishments, the NFL continues to lag behind its neighboring league to the north, the Canadian Football League, which has a 60-year legacy of offering greater opportunities, both on the field and off, to African-Americans, who crossed the border to escape racial discrimination at home. The gap between opportunities offered to African-Americans between the two leagues can’t just be measured in dollars or miles, but, in some cases, decades.

Nothing embodies this better, perhaps, than Jeffrey Orridge, who was named the CFL’s commissioner last year, becoming the first black man to lead a major professional sports league in North America.

“I think my appointment last year as commissioner of the CFL is just the course of history of progressiveness of ethnic and gender diversity in Canada,” said the 56-year-old Orridge. “It speaks of a long history and heritage of being inclusive of a diversity of talent.”

Orridge grew up watching the CFL

A longtime sports executive, the Harvard-educated Orridge was born and raised in racially integrated East Elmhurst neighborhood in Queens, New York City, a couple of blocks away from where Malcolm X lived and about a mile away from the site of Shea Stadium. He grew up as an avid fan of Tom Seaver’s New York Mets teams, as well as the New York Knicks of the Walt Frazier era.

Yet, Orridge said the sports hero who had perhaps the biggest impact upon his life was the one he and his father used to watch together on TV in the late ’70s and early ’80s – Warren Moon leading the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos.

Eskimos quarterback Warren Moon.

Jeff Goode/Toronto Star via Getty Images

“I have a special relationship with Warren Moon,” said Orridge from his Toronto office. “I remember watching Warren Moon on TV with my father. He used to say, ‘That’s why I love Canada. You see a black quarterback. That doesn’t exist here.’ ”

Orridge said his admiration of Moon also gave him a deeper appreciation of his race, the CFL and Canada.

“His message to me was subliminal. It helped make me more cognitive of the importance of watching Warren Moon. I realized that people like me, who looked like me, could play and be celebrated. He was the first modern-day player I was really exposed to, because he looked like me and I looked like him.”

Undrafted by the NFL after leading the Washington Huskies to a 27-20 upset over Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl, Moon signed as a free agent with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos. Moon balked at scouts who wanted him to play wide receiver, as had been the case with many African-American college quarterbacks before him.

At the time, the NFL was reluctant to start an African-American at quarterback, the face of a franchise, citing a litany of excuses (e.g. lack of arm strength, pocket awareness, lack of competition, athleticism better suited to other positions). The position of quarterback in the NFL was almost exclusively a white fraternity.

Warren Moon erased all doubt on the field

Undaunted, Moon quickly adapted to the CFL’s wider and longer field dimensions, three downs and 12-man squads. He was an instant star. Moon led the Eskimos to a record five straight Grey Cups. Along the way, the smooth-throwing Moon set numerous league passing records, including becoming the first quarterback in the professional ranks to throw for 5,000 yards in a season.

“Warren Moon was undeniably talented,” stated John Danakas, author of Choice of Colours: The Pioneering African-American Quarterbacks Who Changed The Game of Football. “He had everything. He had the arm, the intelligence, and the mobility to play anywhere. When he won in Edmonton, they won year after year. He proved that on the field. There was no way to deny him.”

In the interim, James Harris and Doug Williams, both from the historically black college football powerhouse Grambling University, had been drafted and were starting in the NFL.

After having nothing left to prove in the CFL, Moon became a free agent in 1983, drawing intense interest from seven NFL teams. He signed a then-record five-year $5.5 million contract with the Houston Oilers and began a 17-year NFL career with four teams.

Moon set various professional football records, including passing attempts, passing completions, yards and touchdowns. In 2006, Moon was inducted on the first ballot to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, (he is also a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame) becoming the first black quarterback to be so honored.

When he retired in 2001, Moon had passed for 70,553 yards, the most of any quarterback in the history of professional football. The record has been surpassed by another black quarterback, Damon Allen (the younger brother of NFL great Marcus Allen), who played 22 years, exclusively, in the CFL.

Moon was soon followed to Canada by college stars such as Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway, Oklahoma’s J.C. Watts and several other black quarterbacks from major programs. But Moon is just part of a long legacy of opportunity offered by the CFL to African-Americans. He wasn’t even the first black quarterback to start in the league.

First black QB in 1952

That distinction belongs to was Bernie Custis. The first black man to play quarterback for Syracuse University, Custis, a native of Washington, D.C., was a record-setting three-year starter for the Orange. Custis’ roommate at Syracuse was Al Davis, who would become the maverick owner of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.

Bernie Custus, quarterback for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Bernie Custus, quarterback for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Custis was drafted in the 11th round of the 1951 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland’s head coach, the legendary Paul Brown, had integrated the old All-American Football Conference just five years before by dramatically signing Marion Motley and Bill Willis, who were both elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With incomparable Otto Graham firmly entrenched as his starting quarterback, Brown wanted Custis to play safety.

Custis, however, resisted. Brown agreed to release him, but only if he did not sign with another NFL team. As was the custom, Brown called Canada and Custis was signed by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to play quarterback. He became the first black man to start at the position in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, one of the precursors to the CFL that would be formed seven years later.

Custis led the Tiger-Cats when they opened the regular season against the defending CFL champion Montreal Alouettes. (Montreal general manager Lew Hayman had signed the league’s first black player, Herb Trawick, five years previously.)

“Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson started integrating baseball in Montreal,” said Danakas. “This was the same city where Bernie Custis made his debut as the first black quarterback in 1951. He led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to a 37-6 upset victory over the Alouettes.”

Custis went on to a distinguished career as a player, coach and educator in Canada. He was eventually inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

Custis blazed the trail for other black quarterbacks. In 1972, Toledo’s Chuck Ealey, who went undrafted by the NFL despite leading the Rockets to three consecutive Mid-American Conference championships and 35 straight victories, led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the Grey Cup championship in his rookie season.

CFL has had more than 100 black quarterbacks

More than 100 African-Americans have played at quarterback in the CFL, more than double the number in the NFL. In recent years, as many as seven of the CFL’s nine teams have had black starting quarterbacks.

“These were men who never gave up on their dreams,” said Danakas. “They weren’t allowed to play their position in the NFL, but they wanted to play quarterback, they should have played quarterback. They packed up, came across the border to Canada. They showed great strength, resolve and patience of strength. We’re talking about great athletes, like Condredge Holloway, who could have been successful at another position, in another sport. They showed more willingness to persevere. They were people who had a dream and have the ability.”

It wasn’t just quarterbacks who went north to play simply because of the opportunity. Racism on and off the field, during the Jim Crow and civil rights eras south of the border, was another.

Condredge Holloway has pivoted Argonauts to early success. (Photo by )

Toronto Argonauts’ Condredge Holloway.

Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The year after Custis broke in with Hamilton, Johnny Bright, an All-American running back at Drake University, was the fifth overall pick in the 1952 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Instead of going to play in Philadelphia, Bright signed for more money instead with the Calgary Stampeders.

One of the reasons Bright chose to play in Canada was because he was targeted by white players in Drake’s game against Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in October 1951, which produced national headlines. Drake was knocked unconscious three times by tackles in the first seven minutes of the game, the last time also suffering a broken jaw.

Fifty-five years later, some 22 years after Bright died, the president of Oklahoma State ended years of denials and issued a formal apology for what became known as “The Johnny Bright Incident.”

Bright, who would be elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, would later say that the game played a major role in his decision to forgo the NFL. “I would have been their [the Eagles] first Negro player. There was a tremendous influx of Southern players into the NFL at the time, and I didn’t know what kind of treatment I could expect.”

Unlike the NFL, whose teams maintained unofficial quotas on black players for decades, the CFL has always set clear limits on its rosters to preserve the national character of the league. Half the spots are reserved for Canadian-born players and the other half for “Internationals,” usually Americans. At least seven of the 12 starters on offense and defense must be Canadian.

Despite these unique restrictions, CFL front offices have always heavily recruited black players cross the border. The level of competition and player salaries between the leagues was relatively close until the early ’80s, when the NFL started pulling away in terms of revenue with billion-dollar television contracts.

What hasn’t changed is that black players have dominated the CFL. The three leading rushers in league history, Mike Pringle, George Reed and Damon Allen, were born and played their college ball in the United States.

The CFL has consistently been ahead of the NFL in terms of diversity, both on and off the field. Consider:

  • Hampton University’s Dr. Tom Casey, a halfback and defensive back, who played for Hamilton and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 1950s, was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1964, three years before Emlen Tunnell became the first black player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton;
  • In 1980, Willie Wood, a former quarterback at USC and a Hall of Fame free safety for the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers, was named head coach of the Toronto Argonauts. He became the CFL’s first black head coach, nine seasons before Art Shell was hired by Al Davis to lead the Raiders;
  • Former St. Louis Cardinals running back Roy Shivers was named the CFL’s first general manager with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1999 (Ozzie Newsome was named the NFL’s first African-American general manager three years later). Since then, CFL teams have routinely hired blacks as head coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators, considered the proving ground for potential head coaches.

The CFL achieved these milestones without the benefit of the Rooney Rule, which the NFL enacted in 2003 to ensure that eligible black candidates were given the opportunity to interview for senior football leadership positions. The Fritz Pollard Alliance was also formed to promote diversity in coaching and front office positions.

Race did not prove to be an obstacle to the 104-year old CFL last year when it named Orridge as the 13th league’s commissioner.

A former top-level executive at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and a former executive with USA Basketball and Reebok, Orridge had negotiated multimillion-dollar television contracts for broadcast rights for the Pan-American and Olympics Games, as well as Hockey Night in Canada. He said his selection didn’t raise many eyebrows on the Canadian side of the border because race is not nearly an issue in Canada as it is in the United States.

“There’s no reason I would be led to believe that I would not be considered for this job,” said Orridge, a Toronto resident since 2007 and a dual citizen for four years. “I see it as a natural progression. It is incumbent on everybody to pursue the best talent on and off the field. There are plenty of African-Americans qualified in terms of the best possible talent.

“Growing up, watching CFL games on television at home with my father,” said Orridge, “the CFL just seemed like a microcosm of Canada. If you were qualified, you’d get an opportunity to compete and play. That was not every opportunity, but a fair chance. What it represents is Canada society is more open, a more accepting society in terms of great talent.”

Will the NFL ever have an African-American commissioner in a league in which about 70 percent of the players are black? Two men who went north to pursue careers in the CFL see the question differently.

Will real opportunity happen in the NFL?

Roy Shivers, the former NFL running back and CFL general manager, assistant coach and scout, is doubtful.

“I don’t think that I’ll be around to see it,” said the 74-year-old Shivers, who lives near Las Vegas. Shivers grew up in Oakland, California, during the late ’50s and was a high school classmate of Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton, among others. He said his experiences have made him skeptical of promises of racial equality.

Tight-lipped: Willie Wood is grim as he watches his team make mistakes on the field.

Frank Lennon/Toronto Star via Getty Images

“That’s too much money around,” Shivers said of the NFL, which last year recorded an estimated $12 billion in revenues. “Money is power. There’s no way the owners would let a black man have that much money or power. Institutionalized racism is alive and well in the NFL. Other than Ozzie [Newsome, longtime general manager of the Baltimore Ravens], who is making an impact?”

To choose an African-American commissioner, Shivers said, NFL owners would have to show they are considerably more progressive than their track record has shown.

J.C. Watts, a former two-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma who played six years as a star quarterback for the Ottawa Rough Riders, is more optimistic.

“I don’t think it’s impossible or unthinkable,” said Watts. “I don’t know if we will see it, but I wouldn’t close the door. Somebody has to tear down the wall and say, ‘Hey, it’s OK to have a black quarterback, like Warren Moon. It’s OK to have a black head coach, like a Tony Dungy, or a black offensive or defensive coordinator.’ ”

Watts said one reason the CFL continues to set the pace on the issue of race is because Canada never had formal Jim Crow racial discrimination or a civil rights movement similar to that in the United States.

Unlike his experience playing for the Oklahoma Sooners, Watts said, he frequently discussed race with his white teammates in Canada, both American and Canadian, and that players of both races mingled easily. Watts said the onus on the NFL moving forward is on upper management.

“You’ve always got to create the greater good,” said Watts. “You create goodwill when you do the right things because it’s the right thing to do. In the CFL, the reason you saw black quarterbacks was because it was the right thing to do. Nobody asked because of your color. They looked at it as more of a competitive process; how can we win?”

Although the CFL is dwarfed in terms of markets and revenues compared with the NFL, the league still appears to be leading the way in terms of diversity among the other major North American sports leagues.

Sunni Khalid, an award-winning journalist, lives in Oakland, California. The former foreign correspondent and amateur boxer is currently writing a book on Egypt.