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Former Winnipeg Blue Bombers chair takes Canadian government to task over lack of CFL support

David Asper was inducted into the Blue Bombers Hall of Fame in 2017. Global News / File

Former Winnipeg Blue Bombers chairman of the board David Asper makes no bones about it. He is a huge believer and supporter of the Canadian Football League, so when it comes to all matters regarding the CFL, Asper has a decidedly pro perspective in favour of the league.

During Wednesday’s CJOB Sports Show, the one-time CFL vice-chair did not hold back on offering an opinion on the Canadian government and its handling of the request by commissioner Randy Ambrosie for financial assistance last month due to the postponement and potential cancellation of the 2020 season as a result of the coronavirus.

READ MORE: CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie lays out best-case scenario for 2020 season

“I really had hoped the Canadian government would have stepped up and been a more active partner earlier in this to allow whatever planning has to go on, knowing that they have that partnership,” Asper told show host Christian Aumell and co-host Bob Irving.

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“I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. I don’t want to jeopardize it by being critical, but I think that would have helped a lot if the league knew it had some kind of support from the federal government.”

Ambrosie was in front of an Ontario standing committee on finance and economics affairs earlier Thursday to explain how the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it virtually impossible to formulate any concrete plans.

A CFL spokesperson has confirmed that Ambrosie also has a conference call with Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault Thursday evening. Provincial heritage ministers are also expected to be part of that discussion. Prior to Thursday, the last official contact the commissioner had with a federal government member was a May 28 meeting with Finance Canada policy adviser Aneil Jaswal.

Global News has reached out to Guilbeault for comment but did not hear back before publication time.

Asper says the suggestions by the government to apply for funding assistance through various programs — a process that can sometimes take weeks and months — is an indication of just how little these decisionmakers understand what goes into actually playing a CFL game.

READ MORE: CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie testifies before Ontario committee on finance

“The players are obviously the central part to it, but there’s a whole other cast of characters that are necessary to play the game, including the facilities,” Asper said. “Obviously money is the issue and if you can’t have fans, there has to be a way to try and find a source of money to pay everybody.”

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Asper says right from the beginning, he has been very vocal about advocating for some form of bridge financing from Ottawa that would have allowed the CFL some leverage to do some planning — because they’d know they had the resources to do so.

“It’s not just a handout I’m suggesting. I always find it interesting how governments like to hitch themselves to leagues like the CFL when they’re doing the vast array of public and community services that they do.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Cancellation of CFL season is ‘most likely scenario,’ commissioner says

Asper says a perfect example is the wildly successful Diversity Is Strength campaign that the league launched in August of 2017, just a little over a month after Ambrosie was hired as the CFL’s 14th commissioner.

“It took off like lightning across the country and it elevated the league’s image around the world,” Asper recalled. “All the players, all the coaches and organizations got involved.

“The government of Canada was holding it up as a poster child. And then when that friend who is helping you in that role is wounded, where are you?”

Asper feels the league — through its players, coaches and organizations — has been performing that kind of important community, provincial and national service all along. So he doesn’t see it as a so-called bargaining chip as some have suggested.

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“I don’t like the equation of how this is playing out. Sometimes there can be a gap in the perception if you have big media coverage and you have big personalities in the players. Sometimes people think the league and the business in the league is bigger than it is.”

READ MORE: CFL players want in on the conversation, says Players Association President

It’s Asper’s belief, and many agree, the CFL is a middle-class, blue-collar league and accessibility to the players, who do not get paid seven-figure salaries, is what makes it uniquely special for the fans.

“I happen to believe philosophically, because there’s always a debate about supporting pro sports, there is a distinction from other leagues. It can’t be compartmentalized as sports. This league is part of our culture, and worthy of support.”

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