CFL teams should do right thing, release players with NFL opportunities

Photo Scott Grant/

It’s the season of giving and it’s time that CFL teams got in the holiday spirit.

The CFL and CFLPA ratified a collective bargaining agreement in May that allowed players to pursue off-season NFL opportunities. It was believed that any player entering an option year could workout and sign an NFL deal if one was offered.

The trade-off was that CFL teams would keep the exclusive rights to any player who signed down south. If the player was released from his NFL contract, he would be expected to report back to Canada under the terms of his existing CFL contract.

It’s evident that the proper steps weren’t taken in order to make this a reality. The CFLPA filed a grievance against the league for failing to install the window as per the CBA (which, by the way, has yet to be made available to the public).

Hundreds of players took the field in 2019 believing they’d be eligible for NFL workouts and contract opportunities when the year was done. They’ve since been robbed of that possibility.

The situation is a complete mess. The league fined the B.C. Lions less than two years ago for releasing Micah Awe to pursue an NFL opportunity, yet other teams have made similar moves without penalty. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers recently released Jonathan Kongbo with two years remaining on his contract, for instance, and the league didn’t bat an eye.

The reality is that releasing players to pursue NFL opportunities is good business. Teams have allowed a large number of players to leave in recent years and a high percentage eventually returned to their former teams.

For every player who makes an NFL roster — Diontae Spencer, Samuel Eguavoen, Alex Singleton — there are several who get cut. Most of these players eventually return to their original CFL team where they have preexisting relationships with coaches and teammates.

Derel Walker, Aaron Grymes, Jordan Williams-Lambert, Alex Bazzie, Richie Leone, Jeff Knox Jr., Bo Lokombo, Elie Bouka, Jake Ceresna, and Otha Foster are all examples of players who returned to their original CFL teams after a brief stint in the NFL. There are many more.

Forcing players to remain in Canada under contracts they signed believing an NFL window was in effect is unfair. It’s also poor business for teams looking to retain players long-term.

Consider a player like Tre Roberson. The star corner back is drawing interest from over 10 NFL teams but hasn’t been permitted to attend workouts because he is under contract for 2020.

Will Roberson suit up for the Stampeders next season after they prevented him from exploring NFL opportunities? He could just as easily sit out the year and sign down south in 2021.

Suppose he later gets cut by an NFL team. If he chooses to return to the CFL, will he sign back with Calgary? Or would he rather sign with a rival club?

This is hypothetical, of course, but it’s the reality for many CFL players under contract for 2020. The NFL’s minimum salary is $480,000 USD, which is approximately $630,000 CAD. That’s life-changing money — careers in professional football are short and players owe it to themselves and their families to maximize their value.

The CFL also benefits when former players succeed in the NFL.

Fans may not like watching star players leave, but they serve as a great advertisement for the CFL. Eguavoen, Cameron Wake, Dontrelle Inman, Brandon Browner, and Greg Van Roten have all recently proven that the CFL is a viable route to a starting job in the NFL.

American players see that. Their agents and college coaches see that, too.

Using NFL success stories as a recruitment tool allows the CFL to sign new players, many of whom go on to become stars in Canada. It’s a reasonable trade-off — for every player permitted to leave for the NFL, the league will attract several more future stars to fill his shoes.

Forcing CFL players to turn down NFL offers is short-sighted and misguided.

If you let them leave, they’ll probably return to you in the future. They may even help you recruit up-and-coming talent from the United States.

If you force them to stay, they might just be angry enough to quit on you. It’s happened before and it could happen again this off-season, which would be a lose-lose scenario for teams, players, and fans.

It’s time for CFL teams to do the right thing and release players — not just pending free agents — who receive workout requests and contract offers from the NFL.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.