Landry: Argos to celebrate TUFF in Saturday Pride game

For Braden Leibovitch, this weekend’s Pride Game at Toronto’s BMO Field isn’t so much a statement as it is a celebration.

“Really, when you do these Pride nights, it’s more about setting an environment and celebrating the work done throughout the year,” said Leibovitch, the commissioner of Toronto United Flag Football (TUFF).

Saturday night, the Toronto Argonauts will play host to not just a bevy of ex-teammates when the Edmonton Elks come calling, but also to members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, in partnership with TUFF, a local flag football loop that helps build bridges between football and inclusivity.

Matt Black, the former Argo defensive back who is now the club’s director of team performance and player relations, says the game and the atmosphere around it will “show that football can be and should be – and will be – with continuous work, an accepting and open and inclusive environment for those that want to play the game and love the game.”

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Black, the Grey Cup hero who picked off an end zone pass to clinch the Argos’ victory over Calgary in the 2017 championship game, also serves as the team lead for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the Argonauts.

“We want to impress upon the fans and the community that Argos games are a safe and inclusive and welcoming environment for all fans from all walks of life, regardless of their sexual orientation, (or) their gender identity,” he said.

“And I think these Pride games are a step in that direction,” Black continued. “It’s an opportunity for us to focus on the 2SLGBTQ+ community, their contributions to society, and to celebrate their love for this game.

“Just like all other fans.”

Leibovitch has been the commissioner of TUFF since 2020 and has been playing since the league’s early days, stretching back to 2010 when the league had but five teams. This season, with a further expansion of two more clubs, TUFF now boasts 12 squads and a total of 168 players, with more on a waiting list hoping to join in 2025.

“I didn’t play growing up, and most of our league didn’t play growing up,” said Leibovitch, quarterback for a team called the Yetis. “They’re just fans of the game and fans of the community. And it’s a good place to learn the game and to play in a kind of a safe environment where people can be who they are.”

Leibovitch estimates that an astounding 95 per cent of the players in TUFF were brand new to the game when they joined the league and that is something that really grabbed Black’s attention when he first became aware of the organization.

“Understanding and hearing the stories of people who have been a part of this league for five, even 10 years,” began Black, “and have never (previously) played organized team sports because they didn’t feel safe, it really stuck out to me that support for these leagues is crucial.”

TUFF and the Argos have formed an official partnership in 2024, with the team providing sponsorship support for the burgeoning league. With his background in sports marketing — he was once an employee of the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League — Leibovitch knows the importance of that.

But he also knows the value that he’s seen in the Argonauts doing more than just sending a cheque to his office.

TUFF has grown from five teams in 2010 to 12 in 2024, with a waitlist of players for the 2025 season (Photo: Blake Hutchinson)

“What’s made this year really special with the Argos is that they’ve supported us all season long, financially, but also on their platform,” said Leibovitch. “We’re still kind of figuring out the extent of the relationship but right now, things are going fantastic.

“It’s kind of easy to slap a rainbow logo on things and say, you know, ‘happy Pride,’ but it’s more about the substance behind it,” added Leibovitch, pleased with the level of commitment the Argos have shown.

“The intent is to have a long term partnership going forward.”

On Saturday night, the Argos will spotlight players from TUFF throughout the night. Leibovitch says the team sent over a video crew to record TUFF athletes in action and those highlights will form part of the celebration during timeouts.

Pro football has a reputation for being “tough as nails,” with plenty of macho swagger. It has also had a reputation for being less than kind when it comes to a culture of inclusivity and that’s something of which Black is aware.

“I understand that football has that reputation,” he said. “But I think that’s the importance of these nights, right? It’s to change that perception amongst fans and amongst the community and show people that we’re accepting and inclusive of all peoples, of all walks of life.

“We want to celebrate the Greater Toronto Community,” Black added. “The 2SLGBTQ+ community is part of that. I definitely think there is work that needs to be done in the football space. But I think initiatives like this and our partnership with TUFF speak to the work that we’re trying to do to change that narrative, especially when it comes to the game of football.”

In the end, it’s not a big ask. Leibovitch puts it succinctly.

“People just want to play and, you know, watch CFL football in a safe environment where they can be whoever they are.” he said. “And it’s important that the teams, not just the Argos, but CFL teams, can provide that atmosphere, right?”

Black agrees, and celebrates the common ground.

“It’s important because – at the end of the day – these are football fans that want to run around and play a game that we all love,” he said. “And I think that’s something that we can all align on. That football is an amazing game.”

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