Set James Wilder Jr. free (and fix the system while you’re at it)

Let’s say you’re working at a coffee shop.

It’s a good job and there are lots of other people who want to work there but after beating out several other prospective employees during an unpaid competition, you were selected. And you were happy to get it – you didn’t have much by the way of other opportunities to do this job, this thing that you love to do.

But after a year, you’d like to move on. You did a great job for the owners; in fact, you were one of their best employees. Now another bigger, more prestigious coffee chain has taken notice of your skills and offered you the chance to do the same job for ten times the money. Not only that, but you’ve dreamed of working at this particular place your entire life.

Sorry, says the boss. When you took this job, you promised that you’d work here two years – despite the fact that I can fire you at any time, for any reason. And no, you can’t have a raise. Your dreams? Tough. See you at work tomorrow.

What would your reaction be?

Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about James Wilder Jr.

I draw this analogy anytime time I hear a CFL fan insisting American players like Wilder should be forced to play out their contracts despite the existence of legitimate NFL opportunities. Sometimes it’s a plumber, or a bartender or even a journalist: yeah, if ESPN came calling and offered me ten times my salary to write about the CFL, I’d be out of the Spec building like it was on fire – and I enjoy working there and feel incredibly lucky to have the job. (Seriously ESPN, call me.)

The point is: don’t hold James Wilder Jr. or any other CFL player to a standard you yourself wouldn’t be willing to meet – except I’ve got way more job security than Wilder, as do most people at the coffee shop.) CFL teams regularly force players to re-negotiate their contracts under threat of release: just ask Darian Durant, who watched a $130,000 roster bonus go bye-bye when the Alouettes released him earlier this month from a contract they signed him to not even a year before. Players in this league can be cut at virtually any time for any reason and they are, constantly.

There is a (relatively) easy solution to this problem: a re-introduction of the so-called option window. Starting in 1997, the CFL allowed players a two-month period in the final or option year of their contract to work out for and potentially sign with NFL teams. It continued until 2012 when it was, somewhat inexplicably, phased out as part of the collective bargaining process.

Well, at least in principle. In reality, some CFL teams have agreed to handshake deals with certain players that would allow them to pursue NFL opportunities, should they arise. The B.C. Lions, who were actually transparent about this with Adam Bighill last year, got fined by the league for their honesty (actually, for violating the CBA but whatever.) The point is, some players get a defacto NFL window and others don’t. That’s patently unfair.

One of the justifications for eliminating the option-window was that it turned the CFL into a feeder league for the NFL (the rule was actually introduced when the big boys down south loaned their broke Canadian cousins $3 million to keep the league afloat.) Building recognizable stars is hard enough in the CFL without having great players run off to the NFL after just a year.

The expansion of NFL training camp rosters to 90 a few years ago exacerbated that concern. Losing good players is bad; losing good players so they can be training camp fodder is even worse – both for the league and the player.

So here’s a solution: re-introduce the option-year window but force NFL teams to show a level of commitment to the player. In football terms, that means money. Teams down south have a cap of $75,000 that they can spend on signing bonuses for undrafted free agents so even a few thousand dollars is a big commitment. Setting a minimum – say $7,000 – that NFL teams must give a CFL player at signing would go a long way to determining how serious they are about a player while also allowing players to chase legitimate opportunities.

There are other solutions, of course. Upping the minimum salary, currently $54,000, would go a long way. Hearing players complain in other pro sports about being underpaid while already hauling in millions can be tough to take but reading Wilder’s story – four kids, training at the YMCA, a construction job to make ends meet – and it’s hard not to have empathy for the man.

And no, it isn’t a lot of money for six months work because playing professional football in the CFL isn’t a six-month job – it requires a 12-month commitment to training and fitness. Factor in taxes, the exchange rate, the cost of running two homes, the fact that finding another job would be tough – sorry boss, I need to go to Canada for OTAs and then I need six months off this summer – and $54,000 CDN gets gobbled up quick. And when a player’s career is over they get to start all over again.

It’s probably worth mentioning that Wilder caught a third-down pass in the playoffs that kept the Argos season alive and was a big part of their Grey Cup season – something worth millions to a franchise who is hoping to leverage that victory into sustained relevancy and, dare we say it, success in the Toronto market.

James Wilder Jr. deserves a chance to make his money, feed his family and pursue his dream. It’s what we all – barista, bartender, plumber, newspaper and website hack – would want to do if we were in his shoes.