New CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge stands out beyond just his impressive sports background. First, he has the most American background of any CFL commissioner to date.* Second, he's the first black commissioner of the CFL, and one of the very few non-whites to ever be commissioner of a North American professional sports league. (Blanket claims that Orridge is the first non-white commissioner in North American professional sports are pretty much wrong, even if other league heads don't always have the commissioner title: consider the WNBA and the NBL of Canada, among others. Claims of him as "the only non-white head of a major North American sports league" are closer, but depend on a very subjective definition of major.) Why does Orridge's race matter? Well, it doesn't have any impact on his qualifications or his ability to do the job, and it's certainly not why he was given the job, but it is a historical step forward towards equality. It also follows one of the traditions that he said he loved about the CFL as an American growing up; its merit-based approach.
"The CFL made a huge impact on me when I was growing up because of its accessibility, its openness, its fairness," Orridge said. "It truly was a meritocracy."
That's not an empty statement. Orridge was born in 1960 in New York and grew up in Queens, and the CFL made huge strides on the football race relations front before and during his childhood and adolescence. In 1946, the CFL signed its first black player, Montreal defensive lineman Herb Trawick. In 1951, even before the CFL was officially founded, Bernie Custis became the first black player to start at quarterback for any professional team (with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats). Other players who were largely ostracized from the NFL thanks to race, including Johnny Bright and Cookie Gilchrist, elected to head to Canada instead. Even after the NFL was more fully integrated, black quarterbacks didn't get a chance in that league for a long time, prompting many like Chuck Ealey, Condredge Holloway and Warren Moon to head to Canada.
Providing opportunities for black players was such an important part of the early CFL that William Armstrong's made a documentary on it. (That documentary's since been finished and screened; see Curtis Rush's review of it and the Strongwall Productions site for more information.) Those opportunities weren't always universally positive for players and their families: Custis was eventually shifted to running back, likely thanks to racism, while Gilchrist said the CFL elite took advantage of him, and Ealey and his family endured plenty of racism as well. Still, they were much more than the NFL offered at the time, especially before the NFL and the American Football League officially merged in 1970 (the younger, rebel AFL was much more open to non-white players, and black players' decision to boycott the 1964 AFL all-star game after receiving racist treatment in the host city of New Orleans was a landmark moment with implications beyond sports). The CFL's history on race isn't uniformly positive, but the league did a lot of things right at a time when other leagues did not. Orridge's comments about its accessibility, openness and fairness have merit
One would like to think that race isn't a prerequisite for a top sports job in 2015, and it certainly shouldn't be.It should be the meritocracy Orridge spoke so fondly of. Orridge's success or failure as CFL commissioner won't have anything to do with his race, so it's understandable and defensible why race hasn't even been mentioned in many of the stories on his appointment. His hiring is a notable first, though, and such firsts should be noted. The CFL has been responsible for many of those firsts when it came to black players. Now, it's become one of the first big North American leagues to have a non-white commissioner. That's significant progress, and it suggests the CFL remains the meritocracy Orridge initially admired.
*On Orridge's American status: All CFL commissioners up to the most recent full-time commissioner, Mark Cohon, were born in Canada, as was most recent interim commissioner and current board of governors president Jim Lawson. Cohon was born in Chicago, but grew up in Canada from age two on, although he continued to hold an American passport at least as recently as 2007. Orridge was born in New York and came to Canada with his family in 2007; he's currently a Canadian permanent resident and expects to become a Canadian citizen soon. Being born abroad and holding American citizenship obviously doesn't disqualify Orridge, as Cohon did a heck of a job. Orridge does have more of an American background than any previous commissioner, but that international experience may prove useful for him, and he's been in Canada for eight years now, so he's hardly unfamiliar with the landscape. Thus, the American status also shouldn't be seen as a negative for him.