Tuesday's news of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's death at 46 from cancer has spawned numerous pieces looking back at his eventful and controversial life, both from Canadian outlets and foreign ones, and it's also sparked plenty of thoughts from the sports world. Ford's passion for and promotion of football in general is particularly worth examining here, considering the impact it had. While Ford once said hockey was his "number-one sport" (after some criticized his appointment to the Hockey Hall of Fame's board of directors), his love for football was also apparent, from his coaching of a high school football team to his frequent donning of both Toronto Argonauts and NFL apparel. That had good and bad implications for football in Canada, as did Ford's entire tenure, but on the whole, he at the very least helped boost the sport's Canadian presence.
First, there's the good. It's tough to overstate how well Ford became known both in Canada and internationally during his time as mayor, and he was a big part of the attention around the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto in 2012, from his fall during a football game with councillors and City Hall staff to his controversial lifting of the Grey Cup after the Argonauts won it. Ford's international profile only grew after that, especially after he admitted in November 2013 that he smoked crack cocaine during "one of my drunken stupors" while mayor, months after Gawker and Toronto Star reporters both said they'd viewed a video of him doing so. That created an environment where more Americans arguably knew Ford than prime minister Stephen Harper, and it led to a 2014 Jimmy Kimmel appearance. Of course, Ford's international notoriety wasn't all positive, but as I discussed with Andrew Paterson on TSN 1290 Winnipeg Tuesday, he certainly helped refute the impression that Canadians were only interested in hockey. Moreover, within Canada, he did a lot to popularize the CFL, the NFL and football in general, demonstrating that football was a game worth being passionate about, and one that prominent Canadians cared about.
While Ford's high school football coaching career with the Don Bosco Eagles was far from universally positive (he was accused of mistreating players and school staff on multiple occasions, questions were raised about his absences from key city meetings to coach football, and he was alleged to have abused his position as mayor to help his high school team with private buses and fundraising, which eventually led to his temporary removal from the mayor's position), he did lead them to substantial success, including a Metro Bowl (essentially the city championship) appearance in 2012. Even more importantly, some of his players and some of the school board officials he worked with were hugely appreciative of his teaching and of his passion for the sport, which is why the school is planning to honour him. Some of the comments on that front in this CP24 remembrance of Ford really stand out:
“His love for the students on the team was second only to his passion for the game of football,” said John Yan, a spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
Ford died on Tuesday following an 18-month battle with a rare and deadly form of soft tissue cancer called pleomorphic liposarcoma.
Yan said the school is “deeply saddened” by the news of the 46-year-old councillor’s passing and that students will remember Ford as an inspiring figure.
“A lot of students who were here will remember him as someone who pushed them to be the best they could be,” he said. “To them, he was someone they could call on and count on at any time of the day.”
Ford hadn’t volunteered at Don Bosco in three years and many of the staff and students he engaged with are now gone. But those who did attend the high school during Ford’s time as coach said they are heartbroken by the news.
“He always…instilled hard work and said no one is going to give things to you or give you handouts,” said former quarterback Mahlique Marks, adding that Ford helped his players on and off the field.
“He helped everyone in every way – their family problems, at home problems. When people got in trouble he was there for them.”
Robert Sino, another former player, said he’ll never forget the lessons Ford taught him.
“He was very strict, but he had a very big heart and he always told us to always expect the best of yourself,” he said.
Ford's contributions on the CFL front weren't entirely positive, especially considering his heavy involvement with brother and city councillor Doug's attempts to lure the NFL to Toronto on a full-time basis. However, that wound up working out pretty well for the CFL, with the Fords' bungling perhaps even further reducing the already-slim chances of that idea. Ford also did frequently show up at Argonauts' games, and while that may have been seen as a curse at times, it helped reinforce the idea of CFL football as an important Toronto event. (It was an NFL game where he was accused of stealing rocker Matt Mays' seat, too, so Ford presumably stuck to the appropriate seats during CFL games.) Moreover, Ford was an occasionally-useful ally in the Argonauts' quest for a new stadium, if not a dependable one; he did wind up voting against both the city's contribution to the BMO Field expansion and the expansion itself in the end, preferring to lobby for the much-harder-to-achieve idea of a football-specific stadium.
Also, it has nothing to do with the CFL, but Ford's notoriety actually came in very useful on another football front. That would be the Lingerie Football League's ill-advised expansion into Canada, which included the recruitment of Krista Ford, Rob's niece, perhaps in an attempt to capitalize on his fame. That came back to bite the LFL when Krista was one of the 22 Toronto Triumph players who quit over significant safety concerns; her fame led to much more attention to that story, and that helped eventually end the LFL's tenure in Toronto and in Canada.
On a less-positive front, some of the more problematic football connections with Ford came from his decisions to wear football apparel at ill-advised moments. That included wearing a NFL tie (which he later sold on eBay) when he admitted smoking crack cocaine, wearing an Argonauts' shirt when he threatened a Toronto Star reporter, and wearing a customized jersey the Argonauts had given him when he made vulgar comments about his sexual proclivities, prompting the team to distance themselves from him. None of that's really the kind of branding football teams want associated with their product. It also should be noted that Ford played up the worst elements of football and those associated with it at times, including a 2013 appearance on Washington, D.C. radio show The Sports Junkies where he downplayed the significance of concussions and urged kids to "just strap on the gear, do up your chinstrap and hit the guy as hard as you can." Those kind of ignorant viewpoints have been promoted by plenty of football figures, so Ford wasn't alone there, but spreading them is still far from helpful.
Overall, the negatives of Ford's tenure in Toronto shouldn't be overlooked now in the rush of laudatory pieces remembering him, and that's true on the sports front as well. However, it's worth remembering the positives too, and it's worth remembering the role sports played in Ford's life. Bruce Arthur has a good look at what sports meant to Ford, and Michael Grange has a solid exploration of how sports fandom was a key part of Ford's everyman appeal, while the CBC's Gabriella Cook has collected several tweets and posts remembering him from Toronto and Canadian sports figures. One of those, an Instagram post from long-tenured Argonauts' defensive back Matt Black, really summarizes the challenges and contradictions inherent in any remembrance of Ford. Here's what Black wrote beneath a photo of Ford in an Argos' jersey:
Even tho I didn't always agree or approve of #MayorRobFord's choice of words and personal choices. I've always respected him. Why you might ask? Because he was REAL! He had real problems, he was visible and real with people in the community, he had real passion in his heart for our communities, our youth, and our city! Just like real everyday people, he was far from perfect. But he took time to help others, he gave back to our city and he repped #Toronto 24/7/365! "May he without sin, cast the first stone..." None of us are perfect. Be we can all take a page out of Rob Fords book. Give back to this beautiful city we call home, make it a better place for the future generations and respect the good, hard work he did for so many. Rest In Peace Rob Ford. My deepest condolences go out to his family. #Rip #MayorFord #RobFord #Toronto #TheSix #TheSixSide #416 #647 #CancerSucks
In the end, maybe that's the key takeaway. Ford's tenure probably had ups and downs for most in contact with him, but he certainly did do some good things for Toronto, for the Argonauts, for his high school players, and for football as a whole. He certainly made a positive impact on some, too. While there's a lot to criticize about Ford and his time in office, the positives are also worth remembering in the wake of his passing. May he rest in peace.