As the events of the past week have shown, for Rob Ford, football isn’t just a hobby—it’s the very moral compass that guides his approach to politics.
Rob Ford stands on a stage in front of City Hall, flanked by the Grey Cup–winning Toronto Argonauts. As blue-and-white confetti shoots up into the air, the crowd roars and a helicopter whirs overhead. This is Rob Ford in his comfort zone, surrounded by the symbols and language of football. But behind the Nixonian imagery, things are not so jubilant. The previous day, a judge had ruled he must removed from office and, despite his defiant words (“I’m going to fight tooth and nail!”), Ford looked dejected and morose. And just two hours prior to this Argos celebration, Ford was informed that the City of Toronto’s top lawyer believed he did not have the right to run in a by-election, should one be called.
But there was still football—because more than politics or the law, that’s what Rob Ford can rely on.
As soon as Ford leaves the stage, his bubble bursts. Around 60 members of the media are waiting for him, hungry for answers to basic personal and political questions. How was he feeling? What was next for him? For the city? Ford isn’t ready to answer them, so he runs, wide right down the hallway to an escape route next to the library. This isn’t where he was comfortable or where he could be understood. For that, you need football.
July 28, 2011. On the most thrilling day of civic engagement in modern Toronto history, Rob Ford looks bored. Some 350 people have signed up to speak to his executive committee in response to proposed program cuts and are committed to stay up all hours to do so. But the deputants don’t seem to interest the mayor, despite their costumes, poetry, and songs. Then, just past midnight, David Owen speaks. “Like Mayor Ford, I coach football, and was even fortunate enough to win the Metro Bowl.” Ford instantly perks up, the words more stimulating than any of the Red Bulls he consumed that day. “The Metro Bowl?” he responds. “Wow, that’s something.” Ford fails to connect with anyone else who speaks about their respective community projects and what those mean, but he can understand football.
It was inevitable that Rob would love football, because his dad did. Doug Ford Sr. played guard for the East York Argos, a senior football team, and there is no greater hero to Rob than his late father. At Scarlett Heights Entrepreneurial Academy in Etobicoke, Rob played center for the team, and his dad paid for young Rob to attend special training camps run by the Washington Redskins and University of Notre Dame. Rob then spent one term at Carleton University, where it he was on the practice roster but never appeared in a game. He wouldn’t play competitive football again.
Left-wing councillor Joe Mihevc also played high-school and university football, but his focus on football waned with age. “I think most people reach a point where it just loses importance,” he says. “But that’s not the case with Rob.” Mihevc is in a city hall football pool with Ford, and although the mayor has never won a season, he takes it very seriously. “Most councillors walk around with pink slips of who they have to call next, and [Ford] has football rankings and stats in his pocket,” says Mihevc.
The high-school football players that Ford coaches recognize this passion, too. This past Tuesday night, Ryan Polesel, a 19-year-old former Don Bosco Eagle, was at Rogers Centre, where his former team lost 28-14 to the Huron Heights Warriors in the Metro Bowl match-up. “Oh yeah, football is his life,” Polesel says. “Besides being mayor, of course.”
“He taught us discipline,” says another former player, Matthew Petrozza. “He would never miss a game—it would take a funeral or something.”
Ford often speaks about the values that football teaches: discipline, teamwork, leadership. Most people at the Metro Bowl speak glowingly of Ford and how much he puts into Don Bosco’s football program. But this degree of commitment seems at odds with his responsibilities at city hall.
Joe Insalaco, a Metro Bowl attendee who has known the mayor since the two of them were in grade 8 together, reasons that Ford would rather be with his football team because, as opposed to city hall, it’s a forum where the team works together in unison. This observation hints at Ford’s priorities and preferences. All those formative years spent analyzing and living and breathing football have given him a worldview that is as much shaped by the sport as any political bent, and football is a zero-sum game.
Says Mihevc, “He speaks with the metaphors of football at city hall. ‘Move the ball down the field.’ ‘Team Ford.’ This is his reality.”
At the Metro Bowl, Doug Ford speaks to media about the lessons Rob has learned from football and how he passes those onto the kids he leads. But while the mayor tries to apply those same lessons to his day job, city hall is a slightly different beast. “It’s apples and oranges,” Doug says. “One is highly political, one is competitive… well, I guess politics is very competitive, too.”
Mihevc argues that metaphors are bound to fall apart at a certain point because, as you take the logic to further extremes, the similarities run out and differences become all the more apparent. “In football, they teach you to crush the other team. But council doesn’t work like that … [Mayor Ford] sees council as his side and the other side. But you have to work with everyone.”
This is not the Ford way. He tries to strong-arm obstacles at council and plow through to get contentious motions passed. He digs in his heels when defending gaffes and missteps. His playbook worked for his mayoral campaign, but he couldn’t adapt it for governance.
When Rob was found guilty of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act on Monday, Doug implored all of Rob’s advocates to come down and show their support—not at city hall, which might seem to be the logical place (and where the mayor skipped the last four hours of the council meeting Tuesday), but at the Metro Bowl. Rob Ford might be mayor for only 12 more days, but the Metro Bowl was where he wanted to be, where he felt valued and needed. “Everyone has their way of giving back,” explains Doug. “Rob’s is through football. That’s what he understands.”
In the post-game Metro Bowl scrum, Rob is quick to say he’ll be back as coach. It’s remarkably similar to a press conference earlier in the day, where he contritely told the media he respected the judge’s decision but vowed he would return as mayor and keep on fighting for taxpayers. If you get knocked down, get back up again.
After a handful of media questions, all football-related, Rob Ford runs down the tunnel as the lights behind him in the Rogers Centre are turned off. The mood is decidedly more subdued than at the Argos bash earlier in the day, but Ford is much more at ease here than inside the council chamber. You could tell he really would see these lights again, that they made sense to him in a way that city hall never has. This is where he feels at home, where he can shape his worldview, win or lose, rightly or wrongly.