Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

CFL's grief with Braley must be rectified

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One David Braley might be good for the Canadian Football League. Two most definitely are not.

Braley, long painted as an advocate and in many ways a saviour figure for the Canadian Football League, has become a problem.

The larger issue, however, is the league's powerlessness to do anything about it.

In a nine-team league with one man owning two teams, decisions at the board level can be easily controlled. Braley, owner of both the B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts, has two votes and only needs two more to block any initiative at the league's boardroom level.

Along with private owners Bob Wetenhall in Montreal and Bob Young in Hamilton, Braley has held considerable sway in the CFL boardroom for some time.

Despite what is turning into a colossal failure in Toronto, that won't be changing. Not unless Braley wants it, which so far isn't the case.

Old allegiances and older thinking are ruling the day, and CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, who has announced this is his last year on the job, is powerless to bring about change.

Former CFL commissioner Michael Lysko, who tangled with Braley in the boardroom on a number of issues, says the current setup is untenable.

"I was sitting with a commissioner from another league and he joked with me, 'You probably think handling 30 owners is difficult. There are 10 owners that want me fired every day. But there are 20 that don't. Your problem is, if you have two guys that don't like you, they can make one phone call and you're in trouble.'

"In other leagues, the commissioner has a margin of error. There's no margin for error in the CFL," Lysko told the Free Press in a phone interview. "With so few teams, it's why the constitution must state that you can't have a financial interest in more than one team. Not only does it compromise the integrity of the game but from a business perspective, it's bad business. David Braley had the votes when he was covertly paying the bills in Toronto and now that it's out in the open, he still does.

"He pays the bills. Great. If that's your criteria for good ownership, that's fine. But I'm not sure it should be good enough for the CFL. That a guy doesn't not pay his bills. There should be a higher level of responsibility in terms of infrastructure and staff. But the league has no leverage to try and correct this situation. (Braley) can do whatever he wants. He's a poor operator. And he's always been a poor operator."

The next CFL leader must have the will and constitutional power to lead his board rather than the opposite.

Braley bought the Argonauts when the league needed an owner and couldn't find one for its flagship franchise. A visionless tenure atop the Argos, however, has left the franchise in dire condition.

Braley has lost the appetite for writing cheques in Toronto, and the operation is being run at a third-rate level. A deal to sell the Argos to Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment reportedly fell apart when Braley couldn't get his asking price.

A temporary fix has lagged into a profile-sapping dilemma. No new stadium, no ownership prospects and a smattering of fans attending games are the hallmarks of today's Argos.

Braley is not the answer, and now he appears to be blocking a solution. Staff has been whittled to a skeleton at a time when the franchise needs to accomplish more than ever. The players are grumbling about working conditions, and last week, the team practised at three different makeshift facilities.

The latest leak in the good ship Argo has football-operations people telling media they don't have the finances to do their jobs. Scouting and player-recruitment funds have dried up, and the football team is being left to rot.

Braley must be removed from Toronto before the drowning can end.

But this isn't a fight Cohon is going to pick or one his portfolio would enable him to win. At this juncture, both the will and power are lacking.

"If you want to remain CFL commissioner, you have to keep David Braley happy. But that doesn't equate to doing the right things all the time," said Lysko.

The wishes of one man supersede what's best for the league. It's hard to imagine a worse situation. The most important franchise in the league, from a corporate and profile perspective, has been paralyzed.

The rest of the league, led by the commissioner, should be pushing Braley to either sell or start spending. There's been no evidence of this.

Never has it been more evident the CFL's commissioner needs more weight behind his vision and directives. Certainly, if the league's head office had any influence on the Argos file, this isn't what they would have envisioned.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman modernized the NHL by giving his office increased power and the opportunity to lead rather than follow the whims of his board. It's time the CFL did the same.

Just as important as the name of Cohon's replacement is the shape and scope of that person's directive. The next commissioner needs increased power and the personality to use it. The skills to manipulate rather than be manipulated.

Cohon pushed the league forward in so many ways. Labour cost certainty, expansion and ever-growing broadcast revenues. But an uncertain future in Toronto threatens to undo much of his legacy.

Finding the next Gary Bettman is no small task. But it's time for a less malleable chief with the power and will to take on the league's biggest force.

The Braley-as-boss experiment has failed. It's time to end it in both theory and practice.

It's time for the CFL to pack its top suit with power.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2014 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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