Monday, May 30, 2011

Kito Poblah's eligibility helps Bombers, raises questions

TSN analyst Duane Forde broke some of the most surprising news of the CFL offseason Friday with a tweet that hotly-coveted Central Michigan receiver Kito Poblah will apparently be available for next Friday's CFL supplemental draft after all. Forde wrote back in April that he expected Poblah to be granted non-import status in the next few weeks, but that possibility seemed to be knocked out later thanks to paperwork issues. That may have altered multiple teams' strategies for the regular draft, as Poblah was considered one of the top receivers in this class; if it had been known that he was going to be available in the supplemental draft, we might not have seen as much of an early run on receivers we did, with four of the first eight picks being receivers.

In particular, news of this decision may have altered Winnipeg's draft philosophy. In addition to holding the first and fourth picks in this year's regular draft, the Bombers' league-worst record last season gave them first choice in the supplemental draft (where a bidding process allows teams to offer a 2012 selection; whoever turns in the highest offer forfeits the pick and gets the player). It's not entirely clear how that works if the picks offered are in the same round, as the official 2012 draft order hasn't been set yet and there's very little supplemental draft information on the league website. However, it's been widely reported that the Bombers would have first crack at Poblah (pictured above making a spectacular grab in the 2009 Mid-American Conference championship game over Ohio University's Idris Lawrence; the CMU Chippewas went on to beat Ohio 20-10 and claim the MAC championship) in the supplemental draft, so I'd presume that means ties (i.e. two teams bidding 2012 first-rounders) are broken by the 2011 draft order.

(Update: I presumed wrong. A CFL source pointed me to this excellent 2009 article explaining the supplemental draft, which curiously doesn't show up in a "supplemental draft" search. Order of bidding in the supplemental draft does go in the same order as the regular draft, but ties are broken by waiver priority, not draft order. It doesn't matter all that much in this case, as Winnipeg has both the top waiver priority and the top draft order position.)

Thus, if Winnipeg had known they'd be able to get Poblah in the supplemental draft, would they still have made the surprising move to select Saskatchewan Huskies receiver Jade Etienne with the fourth-overall pick, or would they have focused on shoring up their offensive or defensive line?

The Poblah situation could also affect the Toronto Argonauts. It was clear Poblah wanted to play in the CFL this coming year; if he wasn't able to be classified as a non-import, that would make him an import player. There's no import draft, so he would probably come in as a free agent, subject to the negotiation list process. Each team has a list of import players they have exclusive rights to negotiate with; some are rather unlikely to head north, such as top NFL pick Cam Newton or second-rounder Colin Kaepernick, while others like Taylor Potts or Tyrod Taylor may be more realistic prospects. After the early-May reports that Poblah would not be available in the supplemental draft, the Argonauts reportedly placed him on their negotiation list as a non-import; now that he's been declared a non-import, it doesn't seem likely they'll get him. That isn't necessarily a huge deal, as they didn't have to expend anything tangible (like a draft pick or a player) on him with no return, but he did occupy one of their limited negotiation list spots for nearly a month. That may have prevented them from adding other players, and those players may have since been snapped up by other CFL teams.

The belief that they held Poblah's CFL rights may also have affected the Argonauts' draft strategy; they did take three receivers (Djems Kouame, Jedd Gardner and Julian Feoli-Gudino) in rounds three through five, but spent their first-round pick on NCAA offensive lineman Tyler Holmes, who won't be available for at least a year. It's unclear if they would have done the same if they knew they wouldn't land Poblah; Holmes was a highly-touted prospect, and no receivers were taken by anyone between B.C.'s pick of Marco Iannuzzi at the sixth slot (one ahead of the Argos' first-round slot) and Toronto's 18th-overall selection of Kouame. They might have gone with someone at another position who would be available this year, though. Regardless of if it actually affected them, the Argonauts were forced to operate on inaccurate information, and that's not a particularly good thing.

The import/non-import classification isn't all that simple, and by and large, I think the CFL gets it right. They don't go simply by citizenship, but rather by where players grew up: "A player who was physically resident in Canada for an aggregate period of seven years prior to attaining the age of fifteen years qualifies as a non-import player." That's why an American-born player like Ben Cahoon (who spent much of his childhood in Alberta) can become one of the most legendary non-imports out there. It may seem a little silly on the surface, but it's crucial to remember that Canada is a country with a lot of immigrants, many of whom arrive with young kids. If a kid arrives as a one- or two-year-old, grows up in Canada and gets their football start here, it makes sense to me to classify them as a non-import. It's also worth pointing out that switching either to a birth certificate or passport-based system would carry plenty of problems, although it might reduce the complexity of the paperwork involved; a birth certificate-based system would mean people born in Canada whose families immediately moved to the U.S. would count, while people born outside but growing up in Canada wouldn't, while a passport-based system would turn non-import status into a free-for-all with every prospective player trying to get one. The current system isn't perfect, but it does a reasonable job in the majority of cases.

Poblah appears to be a bit of an exception here, and the reason why is his education. One typical source for documentation of a player's residency in Canada during his formative years is school records, and those generally work well; they're formal government documents that show the kid living in a certain area for a certain period of time. Poblah was home-schooled, though, and that appears to be one of the complications that caused the delay over his status. As he told Central Michigan Life, that made his application for non-import status quite difficult:

"It's frustrating because everybody knows I'm Canadian, I'm able work in Canada," he said. "But if they cannot prove it, I'll leave it in God's hands. I'm just doing what I can do and I'm going to keep on moving."

... "I'm still trying to send paperwork to the CFL because they're asking for more stuff," he said. "I've sent as much as I could. We've been trying to solve this for the past two months, but for some reason it's still an issue."

Proving residency without school records probably isn't the easiest thing to do, and it's understandable why the CFL has to be careful and deliberate here. The import/non-import distinction is huge from a roster point of view, as teams' active rosters have to contain 20 non-imports, 19 imports and three quarterbacks of any nationality. Although many Canadian players have proven to be just as effective as imports (see Saskatchewan's Canadian Air Force, which included last year's league-leading receiver Andy Fantuz, or Jesse Lumsden's trailblazing for Canadian running backs), the supply of potential import stars is much deeper given the U.S.'s vastly greater population, the more widespread interest in football there and the sheer numbers of both athletes and football-playing institutions they have. Thus, many import players can be replaced relatively easily; good non-import players are harder to find and thus have more value even if talent is equal. That means the CFL can't just go out handing out non-import status to everyone who might have some claim to it; it's got to be a formal, rules-governed process, and the process they have generally works well.

Poblah was obviously going to get a chance to play in the CFL this year as either a non-import or an import, but it's much better for both him and the team that winds up with him if he's a non-import. Seeing as he does appear to have legitimate claims to non-import status, it's tough to say that he should be considered an import just because the league couldn't verify those claims before the regular draft. His non-import status should make him a hotly-targeted prospect, and it looks like he's set to join his cousin, Winnipeg fifth-round pick and former CMU teammate Carl Volny, on the Bombers, who also have a host of other former MAC alumni. The Bombers should be a great situation for Poblah as well, as the team has some holes in the Canadian receiving ranks. All in all, this didn't work out too badly for either Poblah or Winnipeg.

With that said, though, Poblah's situation does bring up some significant questions for the league: why did it take so long to verify his status? Did the CFL have adequate alternatives to school records in place to verify residency of home-schooled athletes? If not, do they have those alternatives in place now? Would the draft have gone differently if teams had known Poblah's supplemental draft availability sooner? What about the Argos' free-agent negotiations, and should they be compensated in any way? I'm not sure there are any easy answers, but it's certainly worth talking about the issues Poblah's situation raises and what will happen if those issues come up again with another player in the future. Hopefully, if they do, they'll be resolved sooner in a way that's fair to all teams.

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