Independent neurologist should be top priority for new CFLPA leadership

Blue Bomber centre Jeff Keeping was named president of the Canadian Football League Players’ Association on Friday, edging out retired Alouette guard Scott Flory in a vote that was held at the union’s annual general meeting last week in Las Vegas.

Flory’s work as president was key to the ratification of the CFL’s collective bargaining agreement prior to the 2014 regular season. Unfortunately for Flory, the deal he and his union negotiated was almost unanimously considered a loss for the CFLPA by critics around the league. The players failed to successfully negotiate for most of their demands, a serious boost to the league’s salary cap chiefly among them. While early talks of revenue sharing elicited suggestions that the cap could increase as much as 40 percent to $6.3 million, the players eventually settled for just an 11 percent bump in year one of the new CBA ($4.5 million to $5 million) and modest $50,000 increases in each of the four prevailing seasons.

One of the few areas in which the players’ association succeeded in negotiations — even if it was only in part — was the removal of the league’s option-year policy. Option years were eliminated from CFL contracts, allowing veteran players to sign one-year deals with the team of their choosing. This clause only holds for players with CFL experience, however, meaning rookies are still forced to sign contracts for a minimum length of two years when entering the league. This policy has hampered the financial success of many budding stars including BC quarterback Jonathon Jennings, Edmonton wide receiver Derel Walker, and Winnipeg linebacker Khalil Bass, all of whom would have earned huge raises — and possible NFL opportunities — if given the chance to explore free agency this winter. Instead, Jennings, Walker, and Bass will earn little more than the league’s minimum salary in 2016 despite all-star caliber play.

With the league’s CBA locked in through 2018, there is little Keeping can do to change the league’s financial or contractual regulations in the short-term. Where Keeping can make an immediate impact is the issue of player safety, an area in which the demands of the players (outlined here by Sportsnet’s Arash Madani) were largely ignored by the CFL’s brass during CBA negotiations two years ago.

The best place for Keeping to begin in this pursuit would be the first issue listed in Madani’s piece — to have an independent neurologist available for player consultation during all CFL games.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the CFL is uneager to follow the NFL’s lead in adapting an independent neurologist policy as the NFL did back in 2013. Then-CFL president and COO Michael Copeland told Yahoo’s Andrew Bucholtz in May of 2014 that “[the CFL’s] medical doctors are among the very best in the country. They lead the discussion in this regard. The commitment they have to our players never should be questioned.”

Is it possible that every physician employed by the CFL’s member clubs is an honest, ethical professional who cares for nothing but the health and safety of the league’s players? Of course. But this can never be known with certainty. And expecting any possibly-concussed player to blindly accept the diagnosis of his team physician without so much as the option of receiving a second opinion is simply unconscionable. In the interest of the long-term health of all CFL players, each player should be entitled to the opinion of a skilled, independent professional within minutes of a possible concussion occurring. Period.

According to Becker’s Hospital Review — an American healthcare website — neurologists earn an average of $154 per hour including benefits. Using this number as a framework for 95 three-hour games per year, providing its teams with an independent neurologist at all league games would cost the CFL just $43,800 per season. Adding a $1,000 stipend for airfare, hotel, and per diem costs to each game — which would often be unnecessary, provided the league could hire local neurologists in each of its nine markets — brings this total to just $138,800 per season.

Aside from the obvious ethical benefits of hiring an independent neurologist to oversee every CFL game — young men making $55,000 per year to play professional football should never have to worry about whether or not the medical advice they are being given is in good faith — the league should still be willing to hire a neutral physician at every contest for its own benefit. The CFL may have won Arland Bruce III’s recent concussion lawsuit, but there’s no telling when a similar suit may crop up in the future. Limiting its liability would be a wise, preemptive move by the CFL that could easily end up saving the league money should it choose to provide an independent neurologist at all league games.

The CFL is not a money-printing machine like its American counterpart, but protecting its players should be among its top priorities — particularly considering the relatively insignificant costs outlined above.

Don’t let the league tell you safety is too expensive, Mr. Keeping. Your players are counting on you.