With the collective bargaining agreement between the CFL and the CFL Players’ Association set to expire this spring, we sat down with CFLPA executive director and former offensive lineman Brian Ramsay to discuss where things stand with the league, the players’ priorities and what they hope to get from a new deal.
Drew Edwards: What is the status of negotiations?
Brian Ramsay: Right now we remain focused on working on the key issues for our membership. We spend a lot of time talking to our membership, serving our membership getting information from our membership and we continue to do that. You take that information, you work with the player reps and executive and we’re finalizing a package that we will ultimately present to the league.
Edwards: But why haven’t negotiations started yet? Is that on you or on the league?
Ramsay: I don’t think it’s out of sorts. If you remember the last couple of negotiations – and that’s not to say that we’re following past practices – we’re two weeks into the new year. You could make the argument that we could have started last spring or this summer but realistically, you want to get through the season and so to be where we’re at now isn’t surprising, I wouldn’t say.
Edwards: What is the CFLPA’s No. 1 priority heading into negotiations?
Ramsay: You could easily sum them up in a couple of words. One would be “respect” and the other is “fair treatment.” That can touch on a monetary ask or it can touch on rehabilitation for injury. But what the players are looking for is respect and fair treatment across the board on a number of different issues.
Edwards: Are you expecting this to be a contentious negotiation?
Ramsay: You would hope that everyone is coming with the mindset to find a solution but a negotiation is a negotiation. We have clear direction from the membership and we’re looking for a settlement the players can be proud of, one that addresses the needs and concerns they’ve brought forward to us.
Edwards: How big a factor is the Jonathon Hefney injury and what is happening to him now?
Ramsay: What Jonathon has gone through is extremely visible and the players can relate to him: some of them played with and against him. When we look at that as a membership, we look at how the league continues to treat our players in terms of rehabilitation. It shows a continued lack of respect for the players’ well-being because we’ve been talking about it for so long.
Edwards: Do you believe the fans are on the players side?
Ramsay: I think the fans believe that the players deserve to be treated fairly. From the fans that we’ve talked to, it’s glaring and they can appreciate that. Going back to rehabilitation, the players are playing the game for fans and asking to be rehabilitated for an injury suffered on the field seems like a reasonable ask. Fans believe that players need to be treated fairly.
Edwards: Are players being treated fairly now?
Ramsay: I don’t believe they are and our membership doesn’t believe they are.
Edwards: There was a recent report that CFL revenues are at $210 million a year. If that figure is accurate, players receive about 22 per cent of league revenues. Is that a fair number?
Ramsay: I can’t validate the numbers because of restraints in the CBA about the information we can share publicly but if you look at compensation in professional sports leagues in North America, players in the CFL aren’t at the same level. Whatever the number is, you can clearly see that other sports leagues treat their talent differently.
Edwards: What does the CFLPA believe is a reasonable number?
Ramsay: Look, there are some things we’re willing to talk publicly about now but I also want to respect the bargaining process. What I will say is that it goes back to my previous answer: it’s about respect and fair treatment. This has to change and it will change.
Edwards: A number of pending free agents have signed contract extensions this season, including bigger names like Adam Bighill, Ryan Bomben and Justin Medlock. Do players signing extensions without a new CBA in place undermine the CFLPA bargaining position?
Ramsay: Some players are signing contract extensions but there’s a lot that aren’t. What we’ve talked about within our membership, repeatedly and for some time now, is that this has to be a personal choice for each individual depending on their circumstances. Our membership is 550-plus individuals and each has their own unique situation. What’s concerning is that the league doesn’t seem alarmed by the two new leagues, one of them which is offering a $75,000 USD entry-level contract with full rehab and medical.
Edwards: The CFL recently held a Mexican combine and drafted Mexican players. Does the CFLPA have any idea how those players are going to be accounted for on the roster?
Ramsay: No, and we’re not about to start trying to explain what the league is doing because we don’t know. If there’s a collective agreement issue, then the league will have to bring those to the negotiating table. Anyone with the ability can play in the CFL, regardless of their nationality and that’s always been the case.
Edwards: Have players expressed concern about it?
Ramsay: I think there’s always a concern when there’s a lack of respect being shown. Given the state of the league, we believe the growth and the future of the CFL it’s too important to leave to the nine owners and league management. Players want to be part of that, part of those conversations. It’s time to modernize the contractual relationship between the stars of the show and the teams.
We’re at a critical point. It’s painfully obvious that the patronizing attitude towards the players remains. Just stand there and do what you’re told. That has to end. We represent 550 people who have an extremely vested interest in this league succeeding and they’re going to insist on being part of the discussions moving forward.
Edwards: Is the CFLPA supportive of the league’s CFL 2.0 initiative.
Ramsay: If there’s an opportunity to grow revenues, that’s a good thing for everybody as long as the players are able to share in that. But right now, we get the information the same way you do after the fact. We believe we could be an asset and being part of these discussions.
Edwards: Were the players consulted on CFL 2.0?
Ramsay: We had very preliminary talks earlier last year and it’s moved quite significantly since then and we’ve asked, repeatedly, to be part of those discussions. The league continues to say great things about partnerships with the players but saying it and doing it are completely different things. They treat us like a cost of doing business, not as partners.
Edwards: The league and CFLPA have said player safety is a priority. What changes would the CFLPA like to see to improve player safety?
Ramsay: We would like to have a stronger voice on the rules committee. Right now, we are one voice of 11 on the committee and that’s not right. These rules and safety issues directly impact the players, they aren’t felt by the other ten people on the committee. That’s completely inadequate.
Edwards: Brandon Bridge met with Randy Ambrosie last year to discuss the rules around how Canadian quarterbacks are counted on the roster. Is the CFLPA in favour of changing them?
Ramsay: I don’t want to speak specifically about our bargaining position right now but we’ve talked about it in the locker rooms and at the board level and with Brandon himself.
Edwards: You’ve been meeting provincial governments to discuss workplace safety and compensation. Why?
Ramsay: We’ve been making great progress and we’ve been very transparent as to why we’re doing it: to ensure that our players are protected for injuries sustained on the field. Our league should really be ashamed of its attitude towards player safety and injury rehabilitation. We walked out of our first meeting in British Columbia with the full support of the premier and we’ve had positive conversations with a number of other provinces.
Having former players not be able to pick up their kids, having to crowd fund for basic health care – that’s impacting lives. Right now, Canadian taxpayers are on the hook in many cases because the league won’t take responsibility. A workers compensation structure would remove it from the taxpayers and put the accountability on the league. Right now, the league is using the taxpayers to subsidize player care.
– this interview has been edited for length and clarity.