Jeffrey Orridge: CFL's new You Can Play apparel fits with history of inclusion

CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge (L), seen opening the Toronto Stock Exchange Thursday with You Can Play's Patrick Burke and the new line of CFL/YCP hats, spoke to 55-Yard Line about why promoting inclusion matters so much to him. (www.matchforecaster.com.)

The CFL has heavily expanded its commitment to equality and its partnership with You Can Play over the last year, and the next step in that evolution came Thursday with the league announcing an official You Can Play/CFL apparel line. The new hats, t-shirts and polos feature both CFL and You Can Play branding, with apparel available for all nine of the league's teams as well as the overall league, and 25 per cent of the proceeds from these items will go to fund You Can Play's activities and outreach within Canada.

This is also only a small part of what the CFL's doing with You Can Play to promote equality for LGBTQ players, coaches, staff and fans. They've already held workshops and outreach for numerous teams, coaches and the league office already, they'll be doing trainings and community outreach with five further teams this fall, and both organizations will be marching in Sunday, July 3's Toronto Pride Parade. CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, who took that job last March, has made expanding the partnership with You Can Play and the promotion of equality for players, staff and fans regardless of sexual orientation key priorities for the league. Orridge, who is the CFL's first black commissioner, told 55-Yard Line Thursday that fighting discrimination is a vital focus for him given both his own background and the CFL's own history as a league where those discriminated against elsewhere have received great opportunities.

"It's important to me personally because I've always been an advocate of sport being an incredible instrument to create social change, and being able to leverage the influence and the power of professional athletes and coaches and fans to create social change," Orridge said. "Being a part of that, it's not lost on me that it wasn't that long ago that other minorities were not able to participate in certain aspects of our society. It wasn't too long ago that even when we were allowed and ushered in, there wasn't a comfort area, a comfort zone, because the environment was not that conducive to embrace that level of diversity and inclusion. So all of those things struck home with me, and they resonate with me personally because I am part of a group that has been historically disenfranchised, so I have particular sensitivity to that."

Orridge said the apparel line is a key way to help make CFL players, staff and fans feel welcome regardless of their sexual orientation, and it fits with that historical context of the league breaking barriers.

"The CFL is launching a You Can Play apparel line to promote and support LGBTQ inclusion in our sport," he said. "The CFL has had a history of being welcoming to people from whatever background, whatever affiliation, whatever the orientation, dating back to 1951 with the first black quarterback, Bernie Custis, dating to 2015 with the first person of colour as a commissioner in North America of a major sports league. So it's really just consistent with the history of the CFL and being open and welcoming. As long as you can perform, you have an opportunity. As long as you can play, you can play."

According to Orridge, this partnership is a move to both raise money for You Can Play and a move to make it clear that CFL games are open to all.

"25 per cent of the proceeds will go towards You Can Play outreach and activities in Canada, so I think it's important as a funding mechanism to support their great work," he said. "I think from a promotional standpoint, we still have a ways to go in terms of creating a safe environment, a comfortable environment for people with different sexual orientations. Lastly, what's very, very important, and what continues to be important for us, is to perpetuate the training that they're actually doing to make people more sensitive to what's going on and to encourage those people in the LGBTQ community that the CFL welcomes you in the workplace, it welcomes you on the field, it welcomes you in the stands. It is an inclusive league and we want people to participate more, whether it's on the field or in terms of fan engagement."

You Can Play executive director Wade Davis spoke to 55-Yard Line last week about the importance of welcoming in fans of all sexual orientations and helping fans realize that games should be a safe space, and Orridge said reaching out to fans is a key aspect of this expanded partnership.

"I think that it's tremendously important that we use sport to promote socially-responsible initiatives to help change thoughts and behaviours positively for the betterment of society," he said. "The influence of sport is tremendous in that way, players and coaches and anyone who's involved with the sport, including the fans. The fans can also change the way people may perceive others. And particularly in light of what has happened over the last weekend, we are reminded that we have to continue to create an open and accepting society."

Orridge marched in the Toronto Pride Parade last year, along with CFL and Toronto Argonauts' staff and Argonauts' fullback Zander Robinson. He said it was well worth it.

"For me, it was an incredible experience," he said. "I was proud to be marching alongside other people in the sport community, the CWHL, the people from MLS, the Canadian Olympic Committee. Walking hand in hand with people in the sport community, I was incredibly proud to be taking a step up and a step out in support of equality and safe environments for all people to participate in sport."

Orridge said while there's still more to be done, he thinks the CFL has made significant progress on inclusion.

"We've made a lot of strides in the last several years," he said. "There's still a long way to go, but step by step, we're certainly making change."