CFL silence is deafening

THE Canadian Football League and the prospect of playing this season amid the novel coronavirus remain stuck in a holding pattern, despite time being of the essence.

After a lot of chatter and speculation in recent weeks, the last few days have been deafeningly silent. That might have something to do with the CFL’s most recent self-imposed deadline of Friday to get a number of items secured for a 2020 shortened campaign. It could also mean that there’s no progress to report.

After all, the CFL nonchalantly moved up the deadline by a week without even issuing so much as a statement as to why. Simply put, the league hasn’t really bought itself the benefit of the doubt when asking the players and public to wait patiently.

On that note, let’s dive into five of the biggest storylines around a potential season this year — an update of where things are at and what still needs to be done.

1) STATE OF CBA NEGOTIATIONS

A key part of Friday’s deadline is that the CFL and CFL Players’ Association reach a new collective bargaining agreement for this season and in 2021. Given how little progress there has been in recent months — and plenty of in-fighting, including the CFL cancelling a negotiation meeting last Friday — it’s safe to assume there will be no deal for next year just yet. Instead, focus is on a six-game, eight-team playoff format for 2020.

The two sides didn’t meet on Monday or Tuesday, either. So we’re left to believe that talks resumed Wednesday and have continued in earnest throughout the week.

The CFLPA hasn’t done much to help its own cause. Players have been visibly frustrated by what they feel has been a lack of communication, with some taking to social media to express their displeasure. That tension appears to have eased, after the CFLPA hosted a virtual town hall meeting on Monday that saw 400 players take part.

2) SHOW ME THE MONEY

Money talks and compensation has been the most contentious issue between the CFL and CFLPA.

Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie. (Todd Korol / The Canadian Press files)</p>
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Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie. (Todd Korol / The Canadian Press files)

While the league has been forced to issue pay cuts, lay off some staff and furlough others, it continues to pay some of its highest earners. That includes commissioner Randy Ambrosie, as well as general managers and head coaches across the league, all of whom, despite taking a 20 per cent cut on their respective salaries, are still making hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It’s with that backdrop that players are refusing to be paid for just six games, equalling one-third of their base salaries. I can’t say I blame them.

Although a standard player contract stipulates they’re only paid for “activities related to football,” this is anything but a standard year. Asking players to put their health at risk, by both playing and possibly from contracting COVID-19, should require a better monetary incentive than what’s usually the status quo.

One last note: players who decide to opt out of the season will not be penalized. For those on expiring contracts, deciding not to play will result in becoming a free agent in 2021.

3) HUB CITY HOLDUP

Winnipeg has been cleared by the CFL as the league’s official hub city for 2020, but it’s far from taking off.

While it’s nice that Winnipeg won the bid, aided by a $2.5-million pledge from the provincial government, it still hasn’t been cleared by Manitoba Health. And even if it does get the go-ahead from the provincial health authorities, it must also pass the sniff test from the federal government, too.

That will be a tough challenge by itself, but there’s another nagging issue that is still being worked out: who is going to be on the hook for monitoring the players prior to arriving in Winnipeg?

The current, yet seemingly ever-evolving plan is for players to self-quarantine at home for 14 days and receive a negative test before boarding a plane. That’s especially important for the hundreds of players coming from the U.S., including a significant number living in states such as Florida and Texas where the coronavirus is spiralling out of control.

But that’s a major task to execute, made even tougher by the fact the CFL and CFLPA feel it’s the other side’s responsibility to monitor. And with a shoestring budget, as well as players scattered all over, it’s going to be a logistical nightmare.

4) FEDERAL FUNDING A MUST

For months, the CFL has said that without money from the federal government there will be no play this season. And that’s as true today as it was in April, when the league asked for as much as $150 million in the event of a lost season.

The new proposal, issued by the league earlier this month, is for approximately $42.5 million. The request has been framed as a way to cover player salaries and the costs of running a hub city.

The CFL has hit a number of roadblocks with the feds, including a number of politicians saying they aren’t interested in funding for-profit professional sports. But that doesn’t mean talks have completely fizzled out.

The league remains in conversation with government officials, with the most likely option being a low-interest loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada. The BDC, like most banks, has lending criteria and since the CFL loses money each year, the only way it will be approved is if the various provincial governments with CFL teams in their jurisdiction guarantee the loan.

5) THE FALLOUT

Because the CFL hasn’t been transparent with what’s going on, one has to wonder what the fallout might be regardless of whether a season moves forward or not.

If a 2020 season doesn’t happen, even diehard fans are going to feel alienated by the lack of updates in recent months. Players are sure to reach their boiling point, too, having put their lives on hold for months.

If it does happen, how will taxpayers feel about funding the CFL, which includes a number of owners worth upwards of billions? Also something to consider: what if this goes sideways and there’s a COVID-19 outbreak? What trust do we have the CFL can handle such an incident?

As much as I’d like to see three-down football this year, I can’t help but see it as a lose-lose given how turbulent the process has been.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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