TORONTO — It's dramatically impacted tackle football in Canada, but Jim Mullin feels the COVID-19 pandemic gives national organizers a chance to identify and address the challenges facing the game.
On Thursday, Football Canada unveiled plans to hold a two-part summit with Canadian football leadership. The first will involve a series of five remote gatherings over roughly two weeks this month to discuss the state of the game and opportunities to further grow and develop it nationally.
The second stage, expected to take place in January, is scheduled to address the alignment of female tackle, high school and flag football. It will also touch upon specific diversity issues and regional relationships.
Football Canada, the CFL, Canadian Junior Football League and U Sports - including representation from the Canada West, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic University Sport conferences - will take part.
"I think this is way overdue," said Mullin, the president of Football Canada. "We need leaders in the room to make decisions with the challenges we have directly in front of us right now.
"We need to take the shortest path to have discussions and then make decisions about what we have in front of us."
Added CFL commissioner Randy Ambosie in a statement: "We are thrilled to participate in these discussions surrounding the sport of football in Canada. This aligns with the CFL’s try football strategy and we look forward to working with the football organizations from around the country to build a better game for everyone."
The novel coronavirus outbreak forced both U Sports and the CFL to cancel their seasons. And although tackle football is being played in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland amid modifications to be compliant with provincial guidelines, it's estimated participation is around 20 per cent of capacity.
Mullin said registration nationally remains around 45 to 50 per cent, mainly due to flag football programs.
"When we take a look at 13,- 14- and 15-year-olds who were involved in the game coming into the pandemic , this gives them an opportunity to disengage and not come back to the sport," Mullin said. "So junior, university and professional programs could be feeling this dip in participation numbers and development four, five and even six years from now.
"We need to know what we need to focus on and ensure we're not duplicating each other's efforts and instead working efficiently as one sport on the issues that are in front of us. I also feel like coming out of the pandemic, and certainly within the pandemic, we're working with fewer resources as well so we'd better be efficient."
The pandemic has certainly created much uncertainty. But Mullin feels if tackle football can't be played in 2021 that the flag game will again be able to effectively bridge the gap.
"Flag football has turned out to be a salvation for football organizations across the country," he said. "Quite frankly, there are some regions who've been very slow to embrace the flag game and are being pushed into it and they're finding that's a great way to build the base of the game in this country.
"I'm very confident we have the programming in place that if flag is the core of our efforts through the pandemic, the skills kids learn in flag can easily translate to the tackle game once tackle football is ready to take off again."
And Mullin hopes those participating in the summit not only do so with an open mind but also an understanding of the importance of consensus.
"I think we can get that (consensus) if they're looking for answers," Mullin said. "I'm of the opinion that right now . . . with everything that's going on in relation to COVID, everybody is looking for answers.
"Prior to this (pandemic) , in my opinion, we were the most siloed sport in the country. We've got all kinds of groups and associations working within their own bubbles and we need to break down those walls so we're working more co-operatively. We have to find a path to be more co-operative because if we don't, we're going to pay the price for it.
"If we have people walking into the room without an open mind, they'll never have one moving forward. I'm approaching this with pragmatism and I hope everybody in the room shares that with me."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press