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Sidelined: Even the top job offers no immunity from racism

While the rise to the corner office in sports leadership is a struggle for people of colour in North America, even those who hold the top jobs are not immune to the prejudice and systemic racism that pervade sports as they do other parts of society.

Jeffrey Orridge was the first Black commissioner of the Canadian Football League, but says in his two years at the helm from 2015 to 2017 he experienced racism in a number of different ways. (Orridge also served as executive director of CBC Sports from 2011 to 2015.)

“You think when you get to a certain level there is some safety, that there’s certain protection,” Orridge said. 

“You are never safe. I don’t know if there’s any amount of preparation you can possibly have to shield you from the type of insidious attacks against your character or your professional acumen.”

Orridge wanted to believe that his resumé and his rise within the sports landscape in Canada would help shield him. He wanted to believe people would accept him on the merits of his work and not on the colour of his skin. 

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

But in an exclusive interview with CBC Sports, he remembers feeling that wasn’t the case.

“I attained a position of high public profile that made me a more visible target, and I started being the recipient of a lot of underlying bigotry,” Orridge said.

Above all, he wanted to believe his representation as a top sports executive in Canada would be crucial in helping pave the way for others who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC). 

A CBC Sports investigation into coaching and front-office leadership positions in leagues and organizations shows a widespread lack of BIPOC representation across Canadian sports. 

In the CFL, for example, nearly 90 per cent of positions held by team owners, presidents, general managers and coaches are occupied by white people. The same is true within Canada’s national sport organizations, and across the 56 athletic departments in universities who compete under the banner of U Sports, the national governing body of university sport in Canada.

“There are things your white counterparts don’t have to deal with — it’s not even in the realm of their existence or their consciousness,” Orridge said. 

Orridge wants to make clear it wasn’t the CFL as an institution that was leading the racist attacks but, rather, some who support the league and operate within the league’s circles. 

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

“It was not the CFL as an institution. But the CFL did not have the requisite support structure for people of colour because they didn’t have many in administrative or executive positions,” Orridge said.

The CFL declined to respond to a CBC Sports request for comment on Orridge’s description of his tenure.

Orridge’s reign at the top was cut short. In April 2017, after just two years on the job, he stepped away from the position, citing “differing views” with the board about the future of the league. 

“You need internal and external support,” he said. “And when you don’t feel like you’re getting that level of support, then it becomes even more challenging.”

Orridge says throughout his career there were too many occasions to recount where he felt his ideas and plans were disregarded in meetings, but nearly the exact same thoughts and plans were met with praise and recognition when proposed by white colleagues.

“The ideas are not recognized, not documented or celebrated. If anything, they’re suppressed and buried,” he said. “There’s always that level of doubt that is insinuated, embedded in your subconscious. There’s always that questioning. And the system is designed that way. It is designed to keep you on your heels. You can never relax. When I was in a position like that, I could never relax.”

Then there were the not-so-subtle attacks — letters written to Orridge while he was commissioner, mailed to his home, one in particular he remembers.

“It was laced with hate. It talked about the fact that I’m not from here, that I will never be part of Canada, that I cannot possibly reflect who the CFL is,” said Orridge, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., during the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and experienced the overt racism common in the U.S. at the time. “And then there was the not-so veiled threat of I better ‘watch my back’ when I come into [a] particular city.”

Orridge says the CFL lacked the ‘support structure for people of colour because they didn’t have many.’ (Marta Iwanek/Canadian Press)

Orridge always viewed Canada as a shining light of acceptance and equality, where great Black athletes like Jackie Robinson, Bernie Custis and Warren Moon were given the chances they couldn’t find in the U.S.

He saw a place for himself in Canada, but his eyes would be opened to something much different as commissioner of the CFL.

“I thought it was truly the land of opportunity, and if you were qualified, you were afforded the opportunity. That was the image,” Orridge said. “I had a level of ignorance to the certain racism that exists in Canada.”

‘Embedded history’

“I didn’t know the embedded history that isn’t talked about a lot. It’s suppressed…. That’s why I say I was naive.”

What became apparent to Orridge as he rose through the ranks was that despite reaching powerful positions within organizations, he could never escape the feeling of being seen as less-than and treated differently because of the colour of his skin. 

“It wears you down and wears you out,” he said. “My white counterparts don’t have to deal with always being questioned. They don’t have to worry about driving home from a 12-hour day at work and being pulled over and harassed solely for the colour of their skin. They don’t have to worry about that.” 

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and the protests that followed, Orridge, while frustrated and angry, is also heartened that maybe now structural and sweeping change will occur. 

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

“There’s a resurgence of global consciousness when it comes to racial inequalities and disparities and abuses,” he said. “There are so many circumstances at this point that are certainly conspiring to not only awaken people to the realities to what’s been going on, but also there is a push to take action against it. To do something not just symbolically but structural changes.”

Orridge says it can’t just be “window-dressing” statements and activism anymore. 

‘Important not to be the last’

“There have to be mechanisms in place that promote equality and lower the institutional barriers to inequality. There has to be access to education, to proper health care, access to food and nourishment.”

As he reflects on his time as CFL commissioner, there are a lot of things Orridge is proud of, and he does not hold bitter feelings or ill-will toward his colleagues within the league. 

“My role at the CFL was high-profile. It garnered a lot of attention for a number of reasons. For me, it was important I had the role because all sorts of people, particularly youth, could look at me and say, ‘You know what? One day I can be the commissioner of the CFL myself.’ That was probably the most important thing,” Orridge said. 

“It was important for me to be the first. What’s more important is that I wouldn’t be the last.”

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