Passing the buck on Canadian content

Derm Dunwoody August 13 1979

Passing the buck on Canadian content

Derm Dunwoody August 13 1979

Passing the buck on Canadian content


Derm Dunwoody

Jamie Bone, the young quarterback from the University of Western Ontario, might be forgiven for thinking that the gods—or, worse, the Canadian Football League—were

against him that day in late May, 1978, when he reported to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats training camp. First, the head coach, Tom Dimitroff, failed to recognize him; then, with his lawyeragent Alan Eagleson listening incredulously, he was offered a contract for the less-than-princely sum of $14,000 a year on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Refused a playbook, chided for reporting late (in fact, the Tiger-Cats never told him when training camp was to start) and denied what he considered

to be a fair chance to prove himself against the four American quarterback hopefuls, Canada’s league-leading college passer was cut after 12 days.

His problem, Bone decided, was that he was a Canadian—and that CFL teams in general, and the Hamilton TigerCats in particular, simply didn’t want to fill the all-important quarterback position with some home brew out of some hick Canadian college.

Last month in a Toronto courtroom, a board of inquiry convened at the request of the Ontario Human Rights Commission heard Bone’s complaint. The board listened to a succession of young and not-so-young football types testify on the difficulties facing the Canadian (non-import) quarterback who wanted to play in the CFL. Under questioning by John Sopinka (a former CFL player) who represented both the commission and Bone, their collective evidence was to the effect that the CFL’s American coaches and general managers were biased in favor of keeping two import quarterbacks because: (1) the designated-import rule works to their advantage; (2) big-name, high-salaried U.S. quarterbacks sell season tickets while lesser known Canadian college players don’t; and (3) there exists a well-established “old-boy” network among CFL coaches and U.S. college coaches which makes the CFL coach more receptive to a recommendation from American college coaches than the same from coaches at unheard-of universities in Canada.

For all those reasons, Jamie Bone, undoubtedly the most highly regarded Canadian college quarterback since Russ Jackson, believed he had been discriminated against. After his inauspicious start at the Hamilton camp, worse was to come. Under Dimitroff he was given about half as many plays to run as the favored Americans, Jimmy Jones and Tom Schuman. While collecting his $2per-diem (standard in 1978) he complained to General Manager Bob Shaw that he wasn’t being given a fair chance. Shaw’s response: “Well, it takes a hell of a lot of guts for a coach to play a Canadian quarterback.” Bone suited up for Hamilton’s first pre-season game, but was never played. He was released and waived through the league.

Last fall he returned to Western to

get a teaching certificate and again was acclaimed as Canada’s most outstanding college player. Last spring, after filing his complaint before the commission David James Bone faced the possibility that his playing career might be over.

The designated import rule in question sets out two options for coaches. Option A: a team can carry a 15th import provided he substitutes only once, and that the man he replaces stays off the field for the rest of the game. But Option B, introduced in 1970, makes special provision for quarterbacks. If the 15th “designated import” plays the pivot position, he can be interchanged freely with another import quarterback, thus allowing a coach readier and more frequent access to his high-priced American help. While there may be exceptional circumstances favoring the adoption of Option A—the availability of a clearly superior Canadian quarterback, for example—CFL coaches have overwhelmingly demonstrated their preference for the second option.

The result, Sopinka told the inquiry, is that the Canadian professional quarterback is right up there with the whooping crane as far as endangered species go. So desperate is the situation, said coaches Ron Murphy of the University of Toronto Blues and Darwin Semotiuk of the Western Mustangs, that some high-school quarterbacks request transfer to other positions on reaching the college level.

But it was Tom Dimitroff, now head coach at the University of Guelph, whose testimony did the severest damage to the Tiger-Cat and the league’s cause. Dimitroff at first insisted he had kept non-imports Jimmy Jones and Tom Schuman (who was let go in midseason) over Bone because they “had the best talent, experience and knowhow for the job.” The DI rule, he testified, had never entered his mind.

Then came Sopinka’s aggressive cross-examination and Dimitroff, fidgeting with his spectacles, was no longer so certain. Ever candid, the veteran coach admitted he believed that U.S. players are superior to Canadians, mainly because they are better trained at the high-school and college levels. He then conceded he had made up his mind that Bone wasn’t going to be his quarterback long before the Canadian had reported to camp. Bone’s only hope, he said, had lain in a possible change in the rules that would have allowed teams to keep an extra non-import as a designated quarterback. (CFL Commissioner Jake Gaudaur later told Maclean's legal authorities had advised the CFL that the proposed rule change would violate the Human Rights Code in that it discriminated against Americans.) He agreed with Sopinka that in a telephone conversation with a Human Rights conciliation officer he had said that in releasing Bone he had “simply taken advantage of the league rule [the DI rule] like all the other coaches.”

Montreal Alouettes are currently the only exception to the rule, employing Canadian Gerry Dattilio as a thirdstring quarterback, although during the exhibition schedule it looked as if he might win the starting role. Dattilio gave the inquiry a not-so-rosy but quite uninhibited account of a Canadian quarterback’s life in the CFL. A native Montrealer, Dattilio attended the University of Northern Colorado in the early ’70s and set 16 school records before graduating in 1975. The Alouettes’ No. 1 protected pick in ’75, he was told by then coach Marv Levy that he would be given every chance at quarterback. “At the time I didn’t know about the designated import rule,” he testified. “It came as a big shock. I wasn’t given any chance to prove myself.”

After playing wingback, being placed on the injury reserve list (though not injured), traded to Toronto and playing on kicking teams, returning to Montreal to play outside linebacker, sub-quarterback, defensive back, wide receiver, slotback (“The day they ask me to play offensive tackle,” he told Maclean's, “that’s the day I retire”), Dattilio is

now playing some quarterback. He told the commission he had been victimized by the DI rule and that if he knew what he knows now, he would have taken out American citizenship while at college. (CFL rules effectively block that manoeuvre.)

“I suggest,” continued Sopinka as he returned to Dimitroff, “that you kept Mr. Bone in camp for 12 days knowing you had decided he couldn’t make the team.” “Yes,” Dimitroff admitted.

“Would you have treated him the same if he had been the leading U.S. college passer?” “Probably not,” Dimitroff said.

In a two-hour summation at the close of the hearing July 17, Sopinka still bristled with indignation. “The result of this inherent prejudice of coaches and management is that the prejudice creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Americans are given more opportunity to prove themselves in training camps. Therefore they are the only ones who can obtain credentials of being a veteran. The circumstances clearly reveal that only Americans are permitted to gain experience at the quarterback position ... Mr. Bone’s 12-day tryout was a mere sham.”

If the chairman found that Bone had been a victim of discrimination, Sopinka said, then Hamilton should pay him his 1978 contracted salary, $14,000. In addition, Hamilton should be required to give him a one-month tryout without being allowed to exercise the DI rule.

And what of Saturday’s hero, sitting pensively with his attractive young girlfriend in the last row of the near-empty courtroom? When McCamus hands down his decision—later this month— Bone will learn his fate. Or will he? He has been around long enough to know that professional sports organizations report only to themselves and don’t look fondly on athletes who take their grievances to court. If McCamus finds in his favor, would he really get a fair shot at the quarterback slot or would it be a repeat of 1978?

In his quiet way he told Maclean’s: “I didn’t want to wake up five years from now wishing I’d done something then that I didn’t do. I didn’t want any Canadian quarterback to have to go through what I went through. I only wish someone had stood up when I was still a high-school player.” And there’s always the possibility that somewhere out there in the CFL, someday, there might be a coach with a hell of a lot of guts.