There is still a lot of uncertainty around the future of the CFL and of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, said Roughrider player and Weyburn product Brendon LaBatte, who talked about his football life and his serious interest in stock car racing as the guest speaker for the Weyburn Rotary Club.
He took part in the club’s Zoom meeting on Thursday, which connected him with all of the Rotary members, and he answered their questions in regard to his activities.
He told the members there are four main things in his life: his family, his football career, stock car racing, and a love of the outdoors, which he exercises through hunting and fishing, and his involvement with the Weyburn Wildlife Federation.
Brendon and his wife have three children, from the oldest who is seven and in Grade 2, to the youngest, a toddler of a year and a half, plus he has a Rottweiler who is a year old.
“We’ve got quite a bit of chaos going on most days, but it’s still fun,” grinned LaBatte.
Speaking to the uncertainty around the CFL and this season, he said, “Football has been up in the air with COVID. The CFL has been in the news lately,” and the situation has not yet resolved.
He noted that in his second year in Winnipeg, he became a union rep for the players’ association, which he was involved with until he stepped back in 2014. “It’s a time commitment as you’re in conference calls two to three times a week. It just got to be a time commitment I couldn’t deal with any more.”
LaBatte said if the CFL ceases to operate, it won’t impact on his career so much as it would for a young man of 23 or 24 with aspirations of going on to the NFL.
“It’s starting to look more and more the season might not be happening this year,” said LaBatte, adding, “I’d love to see the league stick around.”
He doesn’t support the government bailing some teams out while others are left to themselves, and part of the problem is that the players association has not had access to the teams’ financials since 2009, so they haven’t been able to find out what sort of revenues the teams are getting.
Asked if he would be able to play if some games resumed, LaBatte said he is back to good health now.
“I got fixed up last year. I went down to Philadelphia and had the same procedure as Sidney Crosby, with the same doctor. It was a blessing to be able to get the diagnosis and get it fixed,” he said.
Asked if the CFL might consider playing games without spectators, he replied, “It has been discussed.”
He didn’t think TV revenues would cover expenses with no revenue from spectators, from ticket sales to merchandise, food and beverages at the stadium. The TV deal with TSN brings in about $45 million, “which is the same as the salary cap for players. We’d need to find more revenue than TSN.”
Another scenario that’s been talked about was centring all the games in two venues, one in the east and one in the west, “but I don’t know if that would be feasible. I don’t know how the league would afford that without the government helping.”
This weekend was to have been the opening of training camp for the Riders, he noted. “The coaches don’t know any more than we players do.”
A Rotarian asked if they do have games, how they would keep themselves safe on the field, being that football is a contact sport?
“I don’t know if that’s do-able. I don’t know, I can’t see wearing masks under the helmet,” he said, pointing out that NASCAR started up on the weekend, albeit without any spectators. There’s also the fact that with players, coaches, trainers, equipment managers and others, each football team would have nearly 100 people on the sidelines.
Some had also suggested doing a half-season, starting after Labour Day, but LaBatte was doubtful this would be workable either. “It could be quite a while before we see any contact sports.”
His other major activity, in football’s offseason, is stock car racing, and he noted that he and his father had their outfit down in Arizona this past winter racing, and doing engine work for customers.
“That’s where we were this year, in Yuma, Tuscon, Phoenix. That keeps me busy, plus I do ambassador work for the Wildlife Federation,” said LaBatte.
Asked if he makes enough from racing to cover his expenses, LaBatte said as long as they are getting decent results, they can cover their expenses. “Recently we’ve been doing a bit more engine work for customers, setting guys’ springs, getting cars tuned up, providing parts. That keeps us busy at this stage of the game.”
Rotarian Gwen Wright noted she and her husband used to watch him and his sister Lindsay race in Estevan, and asked if she still drives for them.
“She raced last year a couple times for us,” he replied, noting she also has a family like he does that keeps her busy. For himself, he raced 13 times and twice was in the top 10.
“We were sitting in second in national points,” said LaBatte, adding it was nice to beat some of the top American drivers in their own back yard.
He’s also enjoyed working with his dad in the shop, noting some of the best times they’ve shared have been while working on cars.
Rotarian Sara Irwin asked how old he is, and what the average age of football players is.
LaBatte said he is 33, turning 34 in September, and guessed the average age for a lineback in the CFL is around 30. Players that depend on their speed can typically last about three years, he said, adding, “Linemen typically can play a little longer than a guy who relies on speed. There’s been guys who play until they’re 37-38. I don’t know if I’ll be able to play that long.”
With Regina to host the next Grey Cup, he said he’d like to be around at least that long before stepping down.