Butler and Wilder are driving the CFL towards change – just not fast enough to benefit them

Toronto Argonauts running back James Wilder Jr. retweeted a post from the B.C. Lions announcing they had cut linebacker Micah Awe so he can pursue an NFL contract.

Then he added a comment praising the team for helping a star player chase his NFL dream.

“That’s what’s up,” the CFL’s rookie of the year for 2017 tweeted Wednesday. “Respect to you guys and good luck to him.”

Wilder hopes his long-simmering disagreement with the Argos will also end with the club permitting him to try out for NFL teams.

It won’t.

Previously, NFL teams had a window each winter to negotiate with CFLers who, like Wilder, are in the option year of their contracts, but the league ended that in 2012. Now CFL players must become free agents before seeking NFL deals, and last month CFL owners voted against reinstating the NFL negotiation window.

But Wilder’s and Awe’s cases bring the rule under fresh scrutiny.

On Thursday, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie issued a statement saying he’s open to revisiting the issue, while reiterating the current rule contains no NFL escape clause for players under contract.

“Our rules and procedures are clear,” Ambrosie said in the statement. “Players are required to honour their contracts as they are registered with the league . . . The Toronto Argonauts have honoured these rules and procedures as they should.”

Last week, Wilder and teammate Victor Butler, each still under contract, campaigned online to pressure the team to allow them to seek NFL jobs. Wilder has made his case on Twitter, while Butler, who recorded a team-high 10 sacks, penned an essay for the 3DownNation CFL blog arguing the team was “holding (him) hostage.”

The CFL Players’ Association says it’s investigating Wilder’s and Butler’s cases and thus can’t comment on them publicly. But president Jeff Keeping says the association plans to push to restore the NFL negotiation window in the next collective agreement. The current deal expires next spring.

“Fans and players recognize the wage gap between the NFL and CFL is so great that it’s hard to argue against giving players that opportunity,” he said.

In an interview published Friday on the league’s website, Ambrosie also suggested CFL players narrow the wage gap by working full-time in the off-season.

“Start building an opportunity for their after-football life which, frankly, comes up more quickly than you would think when you’re in the game,” he said.

Argos general manager Jim Popp advocates returning to the pre-2012 rule, saying it would allow all parties to plan for a player jumping to the NFL in his option year. Otherwise, he says, teams and players make informal deals — like agreeing to cut a player midway through a standard two-year contract — to skirt the rule while appearing to follow it.

The CFL ruled on Thursday that the Lions’ release of Awe was engineered to dodge the NFL negotiation ban, and announced it would fine the Lions for the move.

“Our club chooses not to circumvent the rule,” Popp said. “We’re in favour of bringing back the rule that allows guys to work out (for NFL teams). It’s 10 times more positive than the one time you may lose a guy (to the NFL).”

In 1997, the CFL accepted a $3-million loan from the NFL aimed at boosting the struggling league. The loan carried no interest, but contained the stipulation that the league grant NFL teams permission each winter to negotiate with CFL players in the option year of their contracts.

The winter of 2009 saw 10 players depart for the NFL, with seven ultimately returning to the CFL, according to the league. In 2010, 13 players signed NFL deals and 10 returned after being cut from their NFL teams.

Over the last two off-seasons, 36 CFL free agents have joined NFL teams, with 22 eventually coming back.

Those numbers don’t indicate a massive talent drain, but they highlight the CFL’s difficult position. While the league has long served as a stepping stone for players with NFL aspirations, losing stars south of the border complicates the marketing of players and teams.

“It’s not like the rule was changing the identity of the league,” said Matt Maychak, the CFL’s chief communications officer, “(but) maybe we’ll lose some good young players just when the fans are getting to know them.”

The dilemma has turned acute in Toronto, where the Argos won the Grey Cup, were acquired by MLSE, and hoped to leverage both of those milestones to expand their local fan base. This winter, the club has aggressively courted potential season-ticket buyers online, with one ubiquitous ad featuring Wilder’s picture next to the team’s logo and the slogan “This is Argo Football.”

But even as the team features him in its marketing campaign, Wilder — citing a low salary and high cost of living — has said he might sit out 2018 before seeking another NFL job next year. Last week, he issued a statement saying several NFL teams had expressed interest.

Butler, meanwhile, wrote that the Argos knew upon signing him that he didn’t plan a long stay in the CFL.

“I made it painfully clear to the team that I was only interested in playing the 2017 season,” Butler wrote. “I saw this as a great opportunity and possible chance to relaunch my NFL career.”

For his part, Popp says both players signed two-year deals with team options, and that both were informed in January that the Argos planned to bring them back. Popp says the club received written notification from both that they were aware the Argos had exercised the option.

He says bringing back the NFL negotiation period would help players and teams avoid off-season drama.

“It gives you a chance to plan and know, even before free agency,” Popp said.