Wiggle room for Canadian Football League and players to join hands on new collective bargaining agreement

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In the fall of 2017, when the Canadian Football League eliminated padded practices to reduce injuries and added a third bye week to give players more rest, you might have thought the two sides were holding hands and singing Kumbaya while the press release was written.

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“Today, we stand shoulder to shoulder on the important issue of player health and safety,” said Randy Ambrosie, who was then a newly minted commissioner. “We have developed and agreed upon these changes in the spirit of partnership and in pursuit of a shared goal: making the game we all love safer for the elite athletes who thrill our fans with their skill and talent.”

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That was Sept. 13. Just 20 days later, the CFL Players Association was much less shoulder to shoulder with the league and far more in its face. The PA blasted the CFL for leaving former Montreal defensive back Jonathan Hefney twisting in the wind following his career-ending spinal and nerve injuries suffered in a game against Ottawa in October 2015. According to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement at the time, players received just 12 months of post-career benefits and Hefney’s ran out long before his medical bills did.

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“It is more than distressing that a player is not receiving the medical care he needs to recover and to be able to get on with the rest of his life due to an injury suffered on the field, during a CFL game,” executive director Brian Ramsay said at the time. “This should never happen and yet it is to Jonathan and other players as well. We want to work with the CFL to solve this problem, potentially with provincial workers’ compensation coverage, so no player has to appeal for donations to cover medically necessary treatment to live their lives normally again.

“New CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has been making excellent progress in addressing player injuries with the recent ban on full-contact padded practices – this is another urgent issue that we hope to resolve working together with the league.”

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That about-face stood as a vivid illustration of their on-again, off-again relationship, which has never quite blossomed into the partnership the CFL continues to claim it wants and PA says it would be happy to entertain.

Spurred on by Hefney’s continuing personal tragedy — he’s incarcerated in South Carolina for trafficking cocaine, something he said was a last resort to help pay $250,000 US in outstanding child support and medical bills — the players demanded better. When the next CBA was signed prior to the 2019 season, coverage was bumped to 36 months by year two of the deal.

Lo and behold it’s an issue again because a 2020 season lost to a pandemic, another shortened by it, and steadily declining attendance has the CFL scrambling for ways to improve the product. Its bargaining committee has proposed a return to padded practices for one hour per day, up to 12 times this season, despite three seasons worth of evidence that points to a 35% reduction in injuries.

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Understandably, the players have asked for consideration on this issue. If the CFL is going to have them hit their own teammates again, injuries will occur, so the league ought to be willing to take some additional financial pain as well by paying for a more comprehensive health and safety package.

It’s one of the final pillars on which this uniquely Canadian strike is founded. Unique because the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Elks are not actually on strike, and won’t be until Thursday afternoon. Unique also because players in the seven other training camps are not practicing, but are being housed and fed by their respective teams.

“I don’t know how many employers would still feed (striking employees) and put a roof over your head,” said Winnipeg player rep Jake Thomas, who had a nice lunch of chicken drumsticks, salad and rice on Tuesday. “The food is good. It’s camp food. I’ve been eating the same food for 10 years. It’s exactly what I expected.”

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If it seems like an olive branch, it can also be viewed as a negotiating plot. Striking players who are already at a training camp site might be more willing to bend at the last moment so their journey to Canada wasn’t a complete waste of time. Striking players in the United States and Europe will find other things to do and let the bargaining committee hammer out the best possible deal.

But that’s a pessimistic view of the proceedings, and there is actually a reason for optimism. Despite the league’s apparent desire to score a resounding victory over the players every time the CBA comes due, there is still enough wiggle room here for the two sides to join hands again and claim a win-win.

The league last week came off its asinine proposal for a 10-year deal with no bump in salary cap, no Canadian ratio, no consideration of guaranteed contracts for veteran free agents and essentially no room for the fabled partnership. Their current proposal, which they made public, is for seven years, but ought to be five. That way it corresponds with the remaining years of the TSN broadcast deal, which is the financial lifeblood of the CBA. On health and safety, they will have to extend player benefits if they want to backtrack on padded practices. That leaves the ratio and revenue sharing.

“When you look at those four points, they’re huge but we’re not crazy far away,” said Thomas. “The biggest thing is just communication.”

Indeed, it would appear they are a uniquely Canadian distance from labor peace; still far from a partnership, but close enough to shake hands, watch the hockey game tonight and fight again some other day.

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