New playbook needed for the Canadian Football League’s quota system that favours Canadians says football great

Watch the Interview with Nik Lewis.

CFL great Nik Lewis chats with us at Brewed Awakening in Regina about the state of the CFL and his views on the league’s quota system that favours Canadians.

Nik Lewis knows what it takes to play at a high level in the Canadian Football League.

Lewis, a Regina resident, played 15 years in the CFL. He won two Grey Cups with the Calgary Stampeders and retired in 2018 as the league’s all-time leading receiver. He grew up in Texas and was a college football all-star at Southern Arkansas University.

Lewis is a big fan of Canadian football but he’s not a fan of the rule that guarantees some starting jobs to Canadian-born players.

The rules now state that each CFL team must carry 20 Canadians and seven of them must be in the starting lineup, ensuring Canadian content.

“I think we should subtract the number of starting Canadians,” says Lewis who was interviewed on In Real Time. “We have to put into place where we’re competing at the highest level. If you look at the NFL and CFL there are about 22 or 23 hundred athletes. Should you be there because of your nationality? No. You should be there because you earned it.”

The CFL is in the midst of an identity crisis as it deals with the fallout of the cancelled season. Some supporters are advocating more Canadians be included in rosters with hopes such a move would engage more fans. But what would such a move do to the caliber of play?

Lewis makes it clear. He is not advocating a loss of Canadian jobs. He’s okay with having more Canadians on the team than Americans as is the case now.

“But when it comes to starters when a Canadian is better, start the Canadian,” says Lewis, who also served as an assistant coach with the BC Lions in 2019.

“We started nine (Canadians) last year for some games. We only had to start seven but we started nine. We started the best players that we could.”

Supply and Demand

That Canadian quota system, as Lewis points out, is also the cause of another inequity and that is the numbers on the pay cheque. Because of the Canadian content requirements, some Canadians who might be inferior players compared to their American teammates, are among the highest-paid players in the CFL.

It comes down to basic economics. There’s an oversupply of talented American players and an undersupply of decent Canadians.

“You are losing a lot of talent.  When your sixth Canadian O-lineman makes $160,000 and he makes far more than half the other starters on the field and he plays 25 plays a game. You need him (the Canadian) because of the supply and demand,” says Lewis.

So does this make Lewis a pariah with his former Canadian football league teammates?

“I talk openly with them about it, and they believe the same thing, most of them. It’s about competition,” says Lewis. “This is not a volunteer sport. This is a competition sport. At the end of the day those Canadians still have jobs. We’re not cutting Canadian jobs. Canadians need the art of competition. I got my job each year because I earned it in training camp. Nobody gave me a job.” 

Nik Lewis is the CFL’s all-time leading receiver. He earned the CFL’s Rookie of the Year Award and three league all-star awards. A players’ poll in 2012 voted Lewis as ‘the toughest to bring down,’ award. (Photo: CFL).

Lewis says the caliber of Canadian university-trained players has improved since he entered the league. He says, however, that there’s a marked difference in talent level for the Canadians who compete in American college football programs versus those who have played for Canadian-based university teams.

“There are so many Canadians that are very talented but it takes away from them for the ones that say I don’t have to be a starter and I can still play 10 years and I never have to compete for my job,” says Lewis.  

When asked how Canadian football fans might feel about his views, Lewis has this answer.

 “Canadians hate when I say that,” says Lewis. “Here’s the thing. If the level of play goes down because you start more Canadians will you still support it? If we played Canadian football in the US (with an all-American roster) and we put it on TV you will still say that’s a Canadian football game. You’re not going to say we need Canadians to play that game. The game is entertaining. It’s exciting. It keeps you interested in all four quarters. Canadians should be proud of their game and they should be proud of their heritage. But at the end of the day as a competitor, I want to compete against the best. I don’t want to compete against you if you didn’t earn your spot.

Giving back to the community

Tough love? Perhaps. But Lewis is far from an armchair quarterback when it comes to giving back to the Canadian game.

Nik Lewis gives back to the game on a grassroots level in Regina. He trains and mentors young Saskatchewan football players. Some of his football students are now playing in major US college football programs. (photo: Costa Maragos)

We found Lewis one hot Saturday afternoon at a field in North Regina, working out three members of the Saskatchewan Selects football team who traveled from Estevan and Weyburn. Lewis provides training and mentorship for young players of all levels.

 “I love working with kids and just being a part of their journey and remove a couple of hurdles along the way,” says Lewis.

The training is working. Lewis can boast of at least three players he has trained that are now competing in high-level football programs at US-based colleges in Alabama, Utah and North Dakota.

Lewis might not agree with the CFL’s quota system but he is doing what he can to improve Canadian talent.

 “Don’t’ hate me,” says Lewis. “I want to make the Canadians better so we can compete at the highest level.”

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