Opportunities in Canada impressed CFL’s first Black commissioner
March 17, 2017
During the 1982 National Football League (NFL) work stoppage, NBC delivered three-down, 12-man and 110-yard football into American homes to fill the void.
Sitting on the sofa at home in Queens, New York City on a fall Sunday afternoon that year, Canadian Football League (CFL) commissioner Jeffrey Orridge’s father pointed to the screen and the Edmonton Eskimos quarterback who was Black.
In his fifth season in the CFL, Warren Moon – who was undrafted in the NFL – led the team to five Grey Cup wins in six years before joining the Houston Oilers in 1984.
The nine-time Pro Bowl participant is the only player enshrined in both the CFL and NFL Halls of Fame.
“He had everything that you could ever want in a quarterback,” recalled Orridge who was recently honoured with an African-Canadian Achievement Award (ACAA). “He had the strength, athleticism and fearlessness and he could run, pass and leap.
“There on the TV screen was Moon and my dad telling me that in the CFL in Canada, if you are good enough, you can become anything. You were, at least for the most part, given a fair opportunity to compete for a job. Now, neither my father nor I thought that the CFL or Canada was utopian, but the idea there was meritocracy stuck with me. That made a big impression with me. It said that it doesn’t matter where you come from because that doesn’t determine where you can go.”
Two years ago, Orridge became the CFL’s first Black commissioner and the first person of colour to hold the position among North America’s five sports organizations.
One of the first things he did was honour Bernie Custis – pro football’s first Black starting quarterback in 1951 – with the Commissioner’s Award.
Drafted in the 11th round in 1951, Custis turned down the Cleveland Browns request to play safety, bolted to Canada and represented the Hamilton Tiger-Cats which won the Grey Cup two years later with him as the signal caller.
“If there wasn’t a Custis or Moon who is now a friend of mine, there would definitely be no Orridge in the commissioner’s office today,” said Orridge. “There is no point in blazing a trail for others if no one follows. For me, the importance of being the first Black commissioner will be much more significant when there is a second.”
Custis passed away last month at age 88.
“Trailblazers are rightly remembered for being the first,” Orridge noted. “…Bernie changed the game by blazing a trail. He also showed us all how to travel the trail with grace and character.”
Though saddled with financial challenges, the CFL is a unique part of Canadian sports culture that Orridge is thrilled to be associated with.
He was the first commissioner of any of North America’s major sports leagues to march in the annual Pride parade and it was with him at the helm that the CFL set a new precedent in Canadian sport by rolling out new policies in August 2015 to tackle violence against women.
Under the policy, sanctions that involve suspensions and loss of income will only be an option if or when allegations are substantiated and the safety of a victim and/or community members has been compromised.
Last Thanksgiving Day, the league -- in conjunction with its Players Association and Electronic Arts Inc. which is the developer and publisher of Madden NFL Mobile – teamed up in the mobile gaming space. Available on IOS and android devices, the game will allow users to collect different players with different stats and then use them in games against other users.
Later this month, the league will host the first ever CFL Week in Saskatchewan. Major fan engagement events, multi-day media access opportunities to more than 50 prominent CFL players, a Hall of Fame and player gala dinner, a coaches’ media junket and a new passing showcase tournament featuring several of Canada’s top university football programs will be capped off with the CFL’s national combine.
The events take place from March 21-26.
“It’s almost like a mini Grey Cup festival,” said Orridge who worked for Mattel Inc. as vice-president of worldwide licensing & entertainment and new business development. “It’s something new and exciting that we are doing.”
Despite a troubled season last year in which the Toronto Argonauts was last in the league in attendance and wins, the commissioner is optimistic that the franchise will survive and thrive.
“It was the first season under new management and there is no magic wand,” he noted. “The season ticket base doubled and spectators had a great time at the new outdoor BMO facility which is a great venue and very reflective of what we are doing in the league in general and that’s having an environment that’s a wrap-around experience. The concourses are wider, the sightlines are beautiful and it’s just an intimate stadium that’s conducive to a good football experience. The owners have a passion for sport and they understand business. Last year was a rebuilding process and it’s a work in progress for the Argos.”
Graduating cum laude from Amherst College, Orridge first came to the Greater Toronto Area in 1970 with his Jamaican-born dad and American mother, both of whom are deceased, to visit family. He later spent considerable time here in the early 1990s while working with USA Basketball preparing for the 1994 Toronto world championships that the Americans won.
The Harvard-educated lawyer was also head of legal and business affairs for the United States Olympic basketball team that won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics two years earlier. The roster included some of the games legends, including Michael Jordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird.
Migrating to Canada a decade ago, the sports executive served as chief operating officer and head of global business development for the Toronto-based Right to Play International before joining the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as executive director of sports properties in 2011.
Orridge handled management duties for the federally subsidized broadcaster’s Olympics coverage, oversaw rights acquisitions, partnership management, revenue initiatives and program executionand successfully helped secure the media rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympic Games, the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Games and the 2018 and 2020 Olympics.
A presenter at last month’s Historica Canada Black History Month event titled, ‘Black Canadian Trailblazers: Then and Now’, Orridge, who became a Canadian citizen two years ago, said that honour along with the ACAA are extraordinarily humbling experiences.
“It’s incredible for me to be recognized and accepted as a true Canadian because I am an immigrant and Canadian by choice,” the married father of two young children said. “My roots are in the Caribbean and there is such a large Caribbean community in Toronto. I have always felt at home here.”
In contrast to the NFL, the CFL has led the way in providing opportunities to Black quarterbacks, coaches and managers.
Moon was among a plethora of quality Black quarterbacks that shone in the CFL long before Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to make a Super Bowl appearance in 1988.
Willie Wood was appointed the first Black head coach in 1980, nine years before Art Shell became the NFL’s first Black head coach and Roy Shivers was named the league’s first Black manager in December 1999. Ozzie Newsome was the first African-American to occupy that position in the NFL 26 years ago.
Robert “Stonewall” Jackson, a railway porter, was the CFL’s first Black player when he turned out for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1930.