SPORTS

Jeffrey Orridge, CFL commissioner, defends league's drug policy

06/24/2015 09:45 EDT | Updated 06/24/2016 05:59 EDT
Jeffrey Orridge came out swinging this week in defence of the Canadian Football League and its policy on performance enhancing drugs.

At the same time, the rookie commissioner also set in motion changes to the policy that could bring the league more in line with other North American pro sports.

In his first sit-down interview with the CBC since taking over as commissioner of the nine-team loop on April 29, Orridge accused the World Anti-Doping Agency's only accredited drug testing lab in Canada of a breach of confidentiality.

Specifically, he said a story that appeared in Sun Media on June 5 came just a day after he had begun discussions with the drug lab, and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, on how the CFL's drug policy could be improved.

"It was a very productive conversation, so I was rather blindsided that less than 12 hours later, there was a scathing article about the CFL's drug testing policy (one the CCES was a party to from its inception in 2010)," Orridge said. "That was quite astonishing, that was a breach of confidentiality, and it brings in an ethical matter as well."

The article in question, published nationally on June 5, revealed deep concerns by Dr. Christiane Ayotte, head of doping control at Montreal's Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique [a world leader in sport drug testing], over what she believed was a lack of action on the CFL's part to fight drug cheats. Her office would no longer work with the league as a result.

The lab, one of three approved by WADA in North America, had been handling the drug tests for the CFL, through the auspices of the CCES, since the league brought in its first policy in 2010.

Playing the system

Ayotte was especially concerned that university students were playing the system by using drugs between the time they finished their CIS seasons the previous fall, and the CFL draft combine the following March. This year, five players failed drug tests, and three of them were still taken in the league's draft.

What seems to have Orridge annoyed, is he has only been in his new job as Commissioner less than two months, and hasn't been given a chance to make any improvements or changes.

"I would like to make a point that we will not be bullied into changing our policy and will not be dictated to by a group that is supposed to be a partner," he said on Tuesday, adding the league would have welcomed "consultation with and welcome[d] advice from" the anti-PED groups.

However, the league announced on Wednesday afternoon it is looking to change its policy, working in concert with the CFL Players' Association and its head, Scott Flory, himself only entering his second year on the job.

Among the items they will look at [though when hasn't been announced] are:

- What penalties Canadian and American university players will face if they test positive either at the CFL combine [for the former] or by coming directly to the league [for the latter]. This was a major bone of contention for Dr. Ayotte, because of the loophole available to CIS players headed for the combine. If caught, they could still be drafted and play.

- What happens when a CFL player tests positive? Another contentious issue as the league currently puts first offenders into an education and rehab program and does not announce the player's name. Second offenders receive a three-game ban, and a third time is a one-year ban [effectively ending a player's career]. The National Football League, by contrast, has a four-game ban and the player is named, on first offence.

- The frequency of random testing in the CFL. Opponents of the Canadian league's system complained players were not tested enough during the season or in the off-season.

Dr. Ayotte would not make herself available for a phone interview, but in an e-mailed statement said "there is most definitely a disagreement between the CFL and us.

"I will not fuel a vain debate shifting the focus away from the real issue. The CFL knows what is expected from a credible program and they need to commit to get it done. Not argue with me, with CCES, with WADA."

Discussion too late

Asked, by e-mail, if the phone discussion with Orridge had happened, she sent another reply confirming it went on, but insisting by then it was too late.

"The telephone conference was between three parties," she wrote. "The league is aware since November of last year of my position.  I was asked to explain why I had to terminate testing for CFL, why the program was not deterrent at all, what an acceptable program should be.  The commissioner explained why the league could not have comparable programs, low salaries, franchises being almost bankrupted, etc etc.

"I put them on notice six months before and nothing was proposed; the only commitment was to have the file on the commissioner's desk. 

"So, two parties may have considered the conversation as productive as they agreed to give it more time, I did not.  We gained nothing, there was zero on the table, the testing was set to continue under the current conditions and the laboratory was still in breach of its WADA Accreditation.  WADA considered allowing us to terminate the contract, but no longer."

At that point, Dr. Ayotte, confirmed in her e-mail, she had already contacted the media about not being able to continue with CFL drug testing.

As for the third "party" to that discussion, Paul Melia, President of the CCES [involved in the majority of amateur athlete testing in Canada], told CBC Sports on Wednesday afternoon that changes to the drug policy would be "a good thing".

He also took the time to offer an apology to the league.

"As I said to the commissioner, the CCES really apologizes for the very difficult situation our actions created for the CFL that led them to take the action they did, and we deeply regret they felt they needed to exercise the right to terminate our agreement."

Melia expressed hope his organization, dropped by the league in the wake of the controversy, would be able to come back together with the CFL in the future, saying he felt there was an opportunity for changes to be made because he knew Orridge through his time as the head of CBC Sports and Right to Play charity, "and was struck by the man's integrity."

He also said he had "no idea" a story was in the works the day before it came out.

Orridge told the CBC on Tuesday, in what now seems a hint of what was to come the next day, that the CFL policy as it stands focuses "on education and rehabilitation, not retaliation and retribution.

"So far, the results we've witnessed in the last four years have been favourable in that no one has come up with a second positive test," he said. "Are there ways to improve it? Always. Am I an advocate of continuous evolution, continuous improvement in everything we do? Absolutely."

It's on this point that the new Commissioner seemed to set out what philosophy will guide his future negotiations with the players association over the drug policy.

"I am certainly passionate about not allowing the use of performance enhancing drugs, that is cheating," said Orridge, whose dealings with drug testing go back to his involvement with USA Basketball and the first NBA Dream Team, in 1991.

"But it's not just cheating, it has been proven through research that there are such detrimental side effects to the health and well-being and safety of people who actually use PEDs that it's a terrible thing to be involved in sport."

He also suggested naming first-time offenders would "be a matter for further discussion and further debate," as would discussing how to close the loophole the CIS college players seem to have found. 

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