"This Is OUR League"

Bear with me, folks. A little 2 am philosophy session is coming your way…

One of the questions I am asked the most often is, “Why, Nicole, WHY do you love the Riders so much?” People just don’t seem to grasp my love and affection for my Green and White heroes. Some don’t understand it because, well, I’m a girl. And girls sure ain’t supposed to like sports, let alone FOOTBALL. Some think I’m completely confused and try to persuade me that the NFL is a better league, game – better EVERYTHING. Some think I’m attracted to the strategy. Others see me in my jersey, shrug and shake their heads and think, “She’s just nuts.”

To be perfectly honest, my undying devotion to MY Riders is just that: they’re MINE. It’s simply a matter of patriotism. I’m a provincialist. I believe in my heart and soul that Saskatchewan is the best place in the whole world, and the Riders are a metaphor of the province we call home.

The Riders are the only professional sports team our small but vibrant province has. For me, they’re a symbol of the province’s people and its pride. There is nothing that can compare to standing with 30,000+ people in green and white the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and singing ‘Oh Canada.’

When I lived in Vancouver, I found the Saskatchewan girl in me terribly lost. There’s no pride there. I finally realized that I needed to go home, to the province and the people I love. And to my favourite football team.

The Riders are a microcosm of Saskatchewan. The province’s good and bad times have, more often than not, been mirrored in the team’s onfield performance. Isn’t it interesting that 2007 was one of the province’s most successful economic years ever and also the year the Riders won their 3rd Grey Cup? It’s MORE than interesting – if you ask me…

In Sunday’s National Post, CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon wrote an op-ed entitled, “Why the CFL Matters.” I publish it in its entirety because I think it bears an important message:

By: Mark Cohon

It was Grey Cup 2007 and 53,000 Canadians were on their feet, belting out “O Canada.”

Here was a living, breathing, singing map of the country, formed by people from every corner of it, united in celebration.

The sight was unforgettable. The sound was deafening. And the moment, for me, was defining.

I thought of my parents, immigrants for whom life in Canada was a conscious choice, instead of a happy accident.

I thought how grateful I am they moved here from Chicago when I was just a toddler, how this country embraced us, and how much my Mom and Dad have loved it back.

I reflected on my own decision, after working in New York City and London, England for many years, to come back to Canada, because of its quality of life, its enduring values, most of all, because this is where we wanted to raise a family.

I thought about the Grey Cup, and its magical hold on our nation. How it has always shone.

I considered how many people in the crowd that day gather at each and every Grey Cup, and the bond they share with their fellow travelers, how they are as diverse as their backgrounds and respective home provinces, and yet at that moment, they were one.

I considered the fans I had met that year in our stadiums across Canada, Moms and Dads and kids, in seats the average family can afford, for whom a game is a rite of passion.

I looked at the field, distinctly Canadian in its dimensions, and anticipated the game, uniquely Canadian in its origins, traditions and rules of play.

I took some pride in knowing that those who play it also excel in much quieter forums: in classrooms and children’s hospitals across the country, where they champion causes bigger than football.

And I realized what my seatmate, one of our provincial Premiers, said aloud, that there are so few things like this that truly bring Canadians together, and I thought that’s true, especially in an era of free trade, the internet, and Stanley Cup finals in places like Florida and California.

Having worked for the NBA and Major League Baseball, I was struck by the fact that of all the big sporting events I’ve attended – from the World Series to the NBA Finals to Premiership championships – nothing was as authentic as a Grey Cup and no crowd was as celebratory as this one.

And so I sang like everyone else: loudly and proudly.

And I savoured the simple fact that I was there with my fellow Canadians — folks from Halifax and Victoria, Portage la Prairie and downtown Toronto, on their own ticket, out of love for the game, respect for the Cup and, truth be told, for the sheer joy of it all.

In this space, I could have chosen to detail how strong our league is today, how dedicated our governors are, how TV ratings are higher than ever, and attendance is the strongest it has been in two decades.

But I’ve chosen to write about this one intensely personal experience because I believe it makes a profound point: The Canadian Football League matters.

It matters to Canadians. It matters to Canada. It brings us together. And it brings out our best.

There are those who disagree with me. They will tell you the CFL doesn’t matter, because it’s not the biggest or the flashiest or the wealthiest.

Well, if those were our only yardsticks, Canada itself wouldn’t measure up.

But we know it does. It measured up to my parents’ hopes and dreams, and it measures up to mine, just as it clearly measured up for the 53,000 who stood as one
last Grey Cup Sunday.

This is our country. And this – the Canadian Football League — is our league.

That’s our motto for 2008: This is Our League. You’ll see it on our fields, on your television screen, maybe on a t-shirt.

It’s a celebration of what’s uniquely and distinctly ours.

It’s an invitation, to come out and experience what I did on that Grey Cup Sunday: a thrilling sense of belonging.

I, along with many others, are worried about what the coming of the NFL to Toronto means for the future of the CFL. In fact, former Vancouver mayor-turned Senator Larry Campbell has authored a bill entitled the ‘Canadian Football Act,’ which seeks to ban NFL regular season games in Canada. While I endorse the sentiment, the bill doesn’t have a hope in hell of passing. Ultimately, the CFL is a business, and businesses require profit to remain IN business. But this is a discussion for another day.

What strikes me about Cohon’s op-ed is not the touching story about his Grey Cup experience but the fact that, in his words, “THE CFL MATTERS.” And nowhere in this country does the CFL matter more than in Saskatchewan.

The CFL is ‘radically Canadian’ (remember that slogan from the ’90s?). Sure it involves American players. But Americans who come up here not knowing where the hell Regina is or even how to pronounce Saskatchewan come and find a sport that unites a province like nothing else. They meet a population that works together, is full of compassion and desires to be something bigger than it ever dreamed possible.

Call me an idealist, a ‘homer’ or just plain crazy. But I LOVE this place. And this place can lead this country – and the world – if we’d all just BELIEVE we are great. If we would BELIEVE we DESERVE to be great!

I am a Rider fan because I BELIEVE in Saskatchewan.


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