February 23, 2018

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CFL boss's road tour hits city

Fans favour earlier start to season

<p>Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie talked to Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans at the Investors Group Field Monday as part of his Randy's Roadtrip tour across the country.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie talked to Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans at the Investors Group Field Monday as part of his Randy's Roadtrip tour across the country.

Johnny Manziel desperately wants to return to the NFL but before he does that, most observers believe he needs to rehabilitate his career by playing and succeeding in the CFL.

Randy Ambrosie, the CFL’s commissioner, was prepared to give him that chance and instructed the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who own his CFL playing rights, that they had the go-ahead to sign him.

Manziel remains unsigned but Ambrosie has faced stern criticism for not taking a harder line on the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, who flopped in the NFL and became a poster boy for bad behaviour with a littany of legal woes.

On Monday, Manziel told ABC’s Good Morning America he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was being treated for his illness. Manziel also said he had been battling depression and used alcohol as a form of self-medication.

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Johnny Manziel desperately wants to return to the NFL but before he does that, most observers believe he needs to rehabilitate his career by playing and succeeding in the CFL.

Randy Ambrosie, the CFL’s commissioner, was prepared to give him that chance and instructed the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who own his CFL playing rights, that they had the go-ahead to sign him.

Manziel remains unsigned but Ambrosie has faced stern criticism for not taking a harder line on the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, who flopped in the NFL and became a poster boy for bad behaviour with a littany of legal woes.

On Monday, Manziel told ABC’s Good Morning America he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was being treated for his illness. Manziel also said he had been battling depression and used alcohol as a form of self-medication.

"We know that people talking about their mental health struggles is a good thing," said Ambrosie during the Winnipeg stop on his cross-Canada winter tour Monday.

"You have to respect someone who’s got the courage to say, ‘Hey, I have a problem.’ I’m happy for him that he’s aware of his own challenge and he’s gone public with that challenge. As for what happens with Johnny, I’m going to leave that up to him and Hamilton to work out. This is definitely a team area and not a league area."

Ambrosie, who vetted Manziel during a face-to-face meeting earlier in the off-season, would not say whether he had been aware of Manziel’s struggle with mental health.

"I can’t talk about what Johnny and I talked about," said Ambrosie.

"I’m pleased that we had a thorough process. I think it’s good when someone struggling with a mental health issue talks about it. It’s the beginning of a good outcome for a person."

Asked if it was wise to allow the Tiger-Cats the freedom to sign Manziel after the club’s disasterous 2017 mid-season hiring and firing of disgraced U.S. college coach Art Briles, Ambrosie held his ground.

"We did our part," he said. "Our process was to the best of our ability — thorough. I still think there’s things we can learn about how we manage this kind of process. And so, good, we’ve made some strides in the right direction. Can we learn more from the process? But at some point you have to turn that over to the teams and let them run with it. We’ve got world-class players playing in our league right now and I want as many as we can possibly have in our game. It’s not isolated to one name."

Ambrosie’s tour, dubbed Randy’s Road Trip, has stops to come in Edmonton, Hamilton and Halifax. He responded to fan and media questions on a variety of topics:

<p>Quarterback Johnny Manziel, pictured during his tenure with the NFL's Cleveland Browns in 2015, is in negotiations with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats with the blessing of the CFL.</p>

AP PHOTO/GENE J. PUSKAR, FILE

Quarterback Johnny Manziel, pictured during his tenure with the NFL's Cleveland Browns in 2015, is in negotiations with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats with the blessing of the CFL.

— Last week, he responded to complaints about restrictive contracts by encouraging players looking to make more money to find an off-season job. He now regrets his comments.

"I never intended for it to come out that I was telling someone to get a job," said Ambrosie.

"I was simply (saying) I’m proud we have a long history of players working and staying in the communities that they’re playing in. In fact, I was talking with the players’ association.

"We’ve been working on a big jobs program because both the players association, myself and the league, are really interested in the players setting themselves up for the rest of their lives, to use the CFL as a springboard. And look, if a player is frustrated, I just want to tip my hat and acknowledge their frustration and respect the fact I didn’t get it right that time."

— Ambrosie on the CFL’s ongoing effort to add a 10th team by expanding to Halifax:

"Whether this effort... results in a team, I don’t know. But what I do know is I want every football fan and every Canadian in our Atlantic provinces to know the CFL loves them and we want them to be part of the Canadian Football League."

— Ambrosie took an unscientific poll at Monday’s gathering, which was attended by approximately 200 fans, by asking for a show of hands on what they thought about discussions to move the start of the season up by three weeks. Such a move could be a selling point when the league negotiates a new broadcast deal with ESPN. Fewer games in fall could also improve game attendance, which tends to drop off during cold-weather months.

A vast majority of those in the hall approved of an earlier kickoff.

"The entire question about the season shift is one we’re going to talk to our fans about," said Ambrosie. "We’re getting fantastic feedback — not all in favour (but) a lot of it in favour... But then, we’ve got to sit down with some of our other main partners. TSN, we would never presume to get into anything serious until we sat down with them and talked it through... it is clear that this is something a lot of our fans desire."

— If the league wants to double or triple revenue in coming seasons, a better deal with ESPN would be crucial.

"We started conversations with ESPN about the renewal of an agreement," said Ambrosie.

"The conversation is ongoing. They’re showing us some very interesting things about where they’re taking their platform, some of the digital aspects of their platform are very compelling and we’re going to keep having that conversation. That’s not the only conversation we’re going to have."

— Ambrosie said the addition of a designated roster spot for a Canadian quarterback would have to be included in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. The current CBA expires following the 2018 season.

"I think it would be great to have more Canadian quarterbacks and more Canadian talent in our league for sure," said Ambrosie.

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @sawa14

Read more by Mike Sawatzky .

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