A CFL player speaks out: the league is taking advantage of us

Editor’s note: Recently, a current CFL player reached out to 3DownNaton with concerns over what he believes are economic inequalities between the league and its players. Out of concern for his job security, he has requested to remain anonymous.

By A CFL Player

The Montreal Alouette’s decision to release Henoc Muamba right before he was due a significant roster bonus is just the latest example of how badly the players in this league are treated by the teams, the league and, to a lesser extent, our own union.

I should know: I’m a current CFL player who has experienced this inequality first-hand. I’m not using my name because it’s possible that speaking out could impact my playing career. But something needs to be said.

The CFL free agency period began just over a week ago and there was plenty of news regarding the “big money” deals signed by a number of players. So-and-so got this much, so-and-so got that much. The numbers sound significant, certainly. But there is no such thing as true contract value in the CFL.

Anybody who has seen a CFL contract knows what I’m talking about. Gone are the days of signing bonus and salary. Instead, there are now many conditions attached to a player earning the full value of their deal. Play time bonuses are contingent on dressing every game. Ratio casualties and injuries? Meet significant loss of earnings. A week down to the practice roster? Enter a paycheck less than one-fifth it would have been at a league minimum salary. Even some signing bonuses are now being replaced with signing advances, which the player must relinquish in the event they’re cut by a certain date. Contracts in the CFL are not concrete; they are fluid by nature and deal largely in small amounts by professional sporting standards.

And, as the Muamba situation so perfectly illustrated, the contracts aren’t guaranteed and a player can be released at virtually any time (though there are some late-season protections for veteran players.) Muamba was reportedly set to make $235,000 this season but that money, along with his roster bonus, just went poof. Sure, another team will probably sign him but until then, he gets to live with uncertainty. And if he gets hurt while working out? Tough luck for him.

While some players certainly do well in free agency, the reality is that their paycheques often come at the expense of other players. For every Muamba, there must be two or three players making at or near the league minimum ($52,000 in 2016.) It’s not just players on their first contracts either. Veteran Americans are often forced to take less because teams feel they can be replaced by rookie players desperate for a chance.

Those contracts, by the way, are paid in Canadian funds so an American player making the minimum last season (assuming he played in every game) made around $36,000 USD after the exchange rate is factored in. And that’s also before taxes (which we pay in Canada) and living expenses (often maintaining two residences) are factored in. Unsurprisingly, many players are looking for part-time work this off-season.

In the CFL, there is just one regulated expense: the salary cap. Players understand why the cap is necessary but at the same time find it frustrating to have their earning potential limited while teams spend freely in other areas. Take coaching salaries. A player sees a coach get fired in the first year of their guaranteed contract, knowing he’ll be paid the full amount. The Riders reportedly sent 20 scouts down to the Senior Bowl to run a clinic. This shows there is more to be had.

While most teams don’t release full financial statements (more on that in a second) it’s not hard to see that the league is getting a good deal. TSN pays the league a reported $40 million a season for the TV rights which means that, if divided evenly between nine franchises, CFL teams have more than 80 per cent of the salary cap covered before they sell a single ticket or jersey.

How much do CFL teams make? That’s hard to say because the majority of franchises are privately owned and don’t have to make that information available. Courtesy of the community-owned teams, however, we know the Bombers made $3.9 million on 2014, the Eskimos $3.5 million and the Riders $2.2 million (after making $10.4 million in 2013.) We also know that CFL owners refuse to implement the one thing that would help provide economic stability – even prosperity – for every franchise: revenue sharing.

In the NFL, all 32 teams share in the revenue that comes from national TV, gate receipts and merchandise sales. It’s what allowed the league to survive and, eventually, thrive in small markets like Green Bay. And it’s allowed the players to get their fair share: the NFL collective bargaining agreement gives the players a percentage of total league revenue, as well as some local revenue not shared by the clubs as well.

Without revenue sharing or a salary cap tied to league revenues – the CFL owners won’t disclose their financials to the CFL Player’s Association – it will be impossible for players to be fairly compensated. Instead, the CBA and the cap will always be structured so the weakest franchises have a hope of making money and players will bear the brunt of that.

We as players are partly to blame. Our union has traditionally lacked the solidarity necessary to make real change – unsurprising when you desperately need a paycheque or all you want is a chance to make it to the NFL. The ratio rules place a premium on Canadian talent which is why you have a national defensive tackle making $200,000-plus while a veteran international wide receiver makes $55,000. The union is largely controlled by Canadian players as American players have traditionally been unwilling or unable to get involved.

Yes, I get it: this is the business we signed up for and we are getting paid to play a game. But the physical risks, both short and long-term, are significant and careers are usually brief. More importantly, fairness is one of the defining principles of sport and while the CFL playing field might be wider and longer, there’s one thing it isn’t: level.