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CFL in process of investigating helmet-to-helmet hits involving Kuale, Lobendahn

TORONTO - Ejiro Kuale tried to set the record straight Monday.

"I am a clean player, I will always play the game clean," the Toronto Argonauts linebacker said. "It's football . . . it's a tough game and the officials make whatever decisions they make. All I have to do is deal with it.

"There is no fine line. I was taught to play one way and that's how I know to play.''

Kuale was ejected from Toronto's 33-24 home loss to Winnipeg on Saturday for delivering a helmet-to-helmet blow on Blue Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce in the third quarter. The ejection, combined with injuries to defensive backs Lin-J Shell and Evan McCullough and linebacker Anthony Cannon, played a role in the visitors scoring 27 second-half points against a short-handed Argos defence to erase a 17-6 half-time deficit.

"I asked him (referee Glen Johnson) what I was getting ejected for and he said because it was helmet-to-helmet contact," an unrepentant Kuale said. "I don't feel it was helmet-to-helmet contact.

"I was taught to lead with my shoulder and that's what I did."

The CFL is investigating Kuale's hit to determine if further sanctions are warranted. The league has attempted to crack down on helmet-to-helmet shots this season, issuing fines over the last two weeks to Saskatchewan safety Craig Butler and Montreal defensive lineman Kitwana Jones for helmet blows.

The six-foot-two, 229-pound Kuale said if he's fined, he'll appeal.

"I'm a clean player, I take pride in how I play the game," he said.

The CFL is also investigating Winnipeg linebacker Joe Lobendahn's hit on Toronto's Cleo Lemon on Saturday. Following a 14-yard run by Lemon, Lobendahn finished the play with a hard shot to Lemon's head, knocking the quarterback's helmet flying and forcing him out with a cracked tooth and exposed nerve.

No penalty was issued on the play.

Tom Higgins, the CFL's director of officiating, said both incidents were vastly different. Pierce was in the act of throwing and therefore was much more vulnerable than Lemon, who upon crossing the line of scrimmage became a ball-carrier.

"The referee is responsible for the protection of the quarterback and I thought he made a tough call but a correct call," Higgins said. "This is a passer who was hit late, is in a vulnerable position and not protected because he can't protect himself when he's throwing and the player (Kuale) launched himself and hit high and/or helmet to helmet.''

However, when Johnson told Argos head coach Jim Barker of the ejection, he said Kuale had been disqualified for intent to injure, an explanation Higgins admits he was uneasy about.

"Absolutely I am uncomfortable being put in a position to try to ever read somebody and say what their intent was,' Higgins said. "I don't believe it can be done.

"It was the act that was penalized, not the intent.''

Twice the Calgary Stampeders were flagged for late hits against Pierce in their 21-20 win over Winnipeg on July 14 before he was forced out at halftime with a thigh bruise. But Higgins said the CFL isn't going out of its way to protect Pierce, who has battled injuries throughout his career and last year was limited to five starts due to knee and elbow ailments.

"We have a responsibility to all quarterbacks . . . they're afforded the same protection," he said. "I don't believe for a moment someone will protect somebody more.''

Higgins said while Lobendahn's hit remains under review, at worst it was worthy of a roughing penalty.

"The differentiation is the moment a quarterback crosses the line of scrimmage and is running, he is now a runner," Higgins said. "Now, there was no penalty on this play but it's still working to be reviewed because it's tough for officials to make determinations because there's a lot of different officials who come into play because there's someone running down the field.

"As he was going down, was there a dip and during the tackle was there helmet-to-helmet? This is one we're not really quite sure of, we're trying to look into it. But this is rough play, this would never be a disqualification because this is a ball carrier, someone who is being tackled compared to someone who is a passer and is vulnerable.''

Argos defensive end Ricky Foley was fine with how game officials dealt with Kuale's hit. However, he would've liked to have seen more consistency in their approach to Lobendahn's lick.

"I know I shouldn't be talking about it too much, but it was a late hit,'' Foley said of Kuale's blow. "I'm not even questioning if he should've been ejected or not . . . if that's the way the refs see it, I'm OK with that.

"If they're not going to call that, that's fine too. I'm just going to say both were kind of helmet-to-helmet so you have to go both ways with them. That's it, that's all, because then you do leave a grey area for players to think about, 'Well, what if I do this or if I don't do that?' If it's going to be clear helmet-to-helmet, then it has to be helmet-to-helmet both ways and if I see someone's helmet pop off and him laying on the ground and getting carted off, that's a pretty good indicator it was helmet-to-helmet and probably should've been called.

"I want my starting quarterback to be there at the end of the game as well. Cleo Lemon's helmet popped off and he was out for the rest of the game. Buck Pierce bounced up and played the rest of the game so that's my only point.''

Kuale was in hot pursuit of Pierce, who threw a 30-yard completion to Terrence Edwards on the play. Kuale said he was already committed to making the hit when Pierce had completed his throwing motion and had no time to let up.

"No," Kuale said when asked if his hit was a late one. "When the ball was being released, that's about the time I was in my hitting position and there was no coming out of it.

"Once you do your two steps and gather to make a form tackle, it's kind of impossible (to stop).''

Kuale certainly used his shoulder to hit Pierce. But he also appeared to drop his head slightly before impact, resulting in his helmet striking Pierce's facemask and sending him flying backwards.

After Saturday's game, Barker admitted Kuale deserved to be penalized on the play but questioned the ejection. Barker said Monday he spoke to both Higgins and Kevin McDonald, the CFL's vice-president of football operations.

"He (Kuale) knows he shouldn't have launched on the quarterback," Barker said. "It was a second-and-three play and (Pierce) scrambled.

"He had eight scrambles for yardage and the coaches got on the defence about 'We can't let this guy scramble,' and (Pierce) was scrambling. He went after him, not to hurt him but to tackle him. Now, (Kuale) should've run up on (Pierce) and wrapped him up.

"Just like their linebacker didn't run up and wrap up our quarterback, he launched on him. But it's different when you're in the backfield throwing the ball than when you're running.''

Lemon didn't practise Monday and his status remains unclear for Toronto's game in Edmonton on Friday. If Lemon can't play, backup Dalton Bell would start.

“It was knocked split so he’s getting it repaired,” Barker said of Lemon. “It’s very serious, chance of infection and all those kinds of things.

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