Import ratio tips balance of power to U.S. teams


Sometime after the 1995 season, the Canadian Football League will rename itself. The new name will reflect the growing presence of American teams, which account for five of 13 teams. The CFL probably will become the Can-Am Football League or the North American Football League.

But no matter how the league unifies the two countries with an appropriate name, one rule -- the import ratio -- figures to remain a divisive force.

Clubs in the United States and Canada operate under different roster guidelines. Canadian teams are required to carry 20 native players on their active rosters, meaning no more than 17 Americans are allowed on teams north of the border.

U.S. labor laws prohibit any such restrictions on American rosters.

The import rule is a sore spot with Canadian coaches, who say American teams have an unfair advantage. Since the CFL

expanded in 1993, many of its top American players -- Baltimore quarterback Tracy Ham, Birmingham quarterback Matt Dunigan, Memphis rush end Tim Cofield, to name a few -- have moved south and made an immediate impact.

Three of the five teams in the Southern Division have won 10 games, and four could finish with winning records. American teams have a 29-18 record against the Canadians, and only two Canadian teams, British Columbia and Calgary, have winning records against American teams.

In 1994, Baltimore won 14 games and nearly took the Grey Cup in its inaugural season, losing to British Columbia on a last-second field goal.

"Baltimore has certainly done a great job, but it would have been very difficult to have that kind of success as an expansion team in Canada," Winnipeg coach Cal Murphy said.

Murphy, whose team is fighting for the final playoff berth out of the Northern Division despite an injury-filled season, says the import rule hurts his team's depth. And Murphy's concerns have been voiced by every Canadian coach.

With such a limited number of Americans, Northern Division teams rely mainly on Canadian backups. Certain positions up north are designated as all-Canadian, meaning if one of those players is injured, he must be replaced by a Canadian. If an American player is used as a replacement, the team must remove another American from its active roster.

Key injuries have highlighted the rule's perceived deficiencies this year. For example, Hamilton lost middle linebacker Mike O'Shea for six weeks at midseason, and the Tiger-Cats went 1-5 without him, easily their worst stretch. None of the Canadian backups in O'Shea's place approached his All-CFL status.

"We had to replace our halfback [Tony Stewart] for a couple games with a fullback [Shawn Daniels] who had never played halfback," Calgary coach Wally Buono said. "Once you get through your front lines, it [the rule] really affects your replacements."

How to address the problem? Eliminating the import ratio does ** not appear to be an option, although the rule could be modified for the 1996 season, for example, by reducing the number of required Canadians from 20 to 10.

CFL Players Association president Dan Ferrone said a proposal to bring back the "naturalization rule" is up for discussion with the league's Board of Governors. A naturalization rule, which was tried about 25 years ago, would allow Americans to be

designated as nonimports after a certain amount of time, say five years.

"We will never allow the rule to be eliminated. Every survey we've ever done up here says that Canadian fans want to see Canadian players," Ferrone said.

Whatever happens, Canadian coaches such as Saskatchewan's Ray Jauch say the present system is unacceptable.

You can't have a competitive league with two sets of rules," Jauch said. "Anybody who thinks you can is badly mistaken."

CFL commissioner Larry Smith said the import rule will be retained, although he believes the Board of Governors and the CFLPA eventually will agree on a way to change it.

"It's an equity issue, and it's certainly going to be right up there on the hit parade of things to discuss," Smith said.

Expansion on hold

Smith said the CFL probably will hold off for one year on expansion.

"Our No. 1 objective is to solidify what we have," said Smith, who made the recommendation at Monday's Board of Governors meeting.

The board will vote on the recommendation next month. Baltimore owner Jim Speros likes Smith's message.

"Let's keep the league at 13 teams next year, and get every team financially stable before we do anything else," Speros said.

Dunigan's statistics

As Birmingham quarterback Matt Dunigan, 34, winds down his 13th Canadian Football League season, he has recorded career highs in pass attempts, completions and yardage despite missing the first two games with a fractured finger. He is second all-time in the league in yardage, attempts, completions and touchdowns. A year-by-year breakdown of Dunigan's career:

Passing Rushing

Year Team GP Att Cmp Yds TD INT Pct. Att Yds TD

1983 Edm. 16 26 14 239 1 2 53.9 4 23 0

1984 Edm. 13 412 220 3273 21 19 53.4 89 732 9

1985 Edm. 14 405 242 3410 19 22 59.7 113 737 9

1986 Edm. 18 485 275 3648 25 14 56.7 118 594 4

1987 Edm. 13 326 175 2823 21 19 53.7 51 287 4

1988 B.C. 17 471 268 3776 26 22 56.9 97 501 6

1989 B.C. 18 597 331 4509 27 20 55.4 70 397 10

1990 Tor. 8 262 144 2028 17 14 55.0 48 218 7

1991 Tor. 8 196 121 2011 16 10 61.7 34 190 2

1992 Win. 18 411 205 2857 17 15 49.9 42 238 3

1993 Win. 16 600 334 4682 36 18 55.7 84 517 11

1994 Win. 11 431 252 3965 31 16 58.5 42 204 5

1995 Birm. 14 623 349 4688 33 15 56.0 37 203 7

Tot. 184 5245 2930 41909 290 206 55.8 829 4841 77

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