Edwards: Wilder and Butler deserve credit for speaking out

This week, 3DownNation published statements from two current CFLers expressing their frustration at both the level of compensation the league provides the vast majority of its first-year American players and their inability to pursue NFL opportunities. The issues raised by Toronto Argonauts James Wilder Victor Butler will be a surprise to some CFL fans, though they shouldn’t be.

But what’s truly shocking is that they expressed them at all.

At one point during my discussions this week with Butler about powerful and emotional first-person piece he published on 3Down, he sent me a reply to some edits I had suggested to the piece.

“It doesn’t get the true feeling of frustration and disappointment and disgust that I feel across. I lose sleep over this issue it has heavy implications on my life and family,” Butler wrote. “I don’t care if the readers are angry at me for what I say or angry at the league and team for letting it get this way, but they should be angry. They should feel the despair and helplessness that all American players feel through this article.”

One of the things I’ve come to believe over my ten years covering the CFL is that the coverage is heavily weighted toward the perspectives offered by the league and team management, sometimes at the expense of players. Access to players is largely controlled by the league and the teams, who make them available at times of their choosing – at media events or after practice. During the season, there is open locker room once a week, for a half an hour, where its possible to have more casual, informal discussions. Head coaches, meanwhile, are available pretty much every day: their perspective is the dominant one.

But it’s not just an access issue. Players know full well that saying what they really think, speaking their minds, straying from the tried-and-true Athlete’s Quote Book, is likely to have consequences behind the scenes. It’s why many of the stories where athletes try and speak what they believe to be the truth feature anonymous sources – sometimes, it’s the only way a player feels they can speak their mind without facing significant personal, professional and economic consequences.

The media is complicit in this, too. As a beat reporter, maintaining relationships with coaches, general managers and personnel staff is a key component of the job – they typically remain in place for far longer than the average player. Writing something that upsets that relationship is likely to have an impact on your ability to do the job. I’m not saying that’s wrong – there are consequences to every decision – but it is a deterrent to allowing players to speak out.

This week, however, has been a good week for outspoken players talking about issues that matter to them.

First, it was Wilder Jr., who issued a statement through 3Down saying he wouldn’t play for the Argos next year because of concerns over opportunity and economics, followed by a compelling Q&A where he articulated his reasoning (it’s really more important than the statement and you should read it.)

Then Butler, who’s piece covered many of the same issues as Wilder – concerns over pay and limited opportunities – but also conveyed, in the bluntest of terms, the anger and frustration he feels about the situation.

What Wilder and Butler said this week doesn’t particularly surprise me: the issues that they raised have been bubbling below the surface for a few seasons now and I do believe their concerns are shared by a significant portion of the American players in the CFL. What shocked me was their willingness to not just speak their minds but to do so openly, so candidly. They didn’t hide behind the veil of anonymity but put their names and their reputations behind their words. Whether you agree with their positions or not – and many people don’t – what they did took courage.

It should also serve as a further wake-up call to the league and its teams. Players grumbling privately about low pay and the restrictive nature of the league’s entry-level contracts – and its the combination of these things that’s at the root of the issue here – is nothing new. But star players – both Wilder and Butler fit that description – willing to speak out and sit out is altogether a new development. On some level, the CFL is dependent on the fact that these men love the game so much they are willing to do anything to play it.

With ever-increasing concerns about health, restrictive contracts that limit very real economic opportunities and a pay scale that hasn’t kept pace as TV revenues have increased and new stadiums built, Butler and Wilder are the first to publicly say it isn’t fair and, of greater concern to the league, it isn’t worth it.

It’s a message, as difficult as it is to hear for all of us who love the CFL, that’s worth listening to.