All CFL players could become free agents if season suspended

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

The CFL could be forced to deal with a legal labour issue if the league has to suspend or postpone the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Training camps, originally scheduled to open on May 17, have been postponed indefinitely. As the effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus continues, the federal and provincial governments along with city counterparts are taking measures to reduce social gatherings with physical distancing measures.

The first CFL pre-season game is set for May 24, while the regular season is currently scheduled to kick-off on June 11. However, it is expected other cities could follow Calgary‘s lead and ban public events. That would cause the three-down schedule to be postponed or suspended. Two similar words in meaning, but legally the interpretations could be open for debate.

One word in particular appears in a clause embedded in all standard player contracts signed in the CFL. Line 16 reads as follows:

It is mutually understood and agreed that if the operation of the Canadian Football League is suspended, this Contract shall immediately be terminated and the remuneration to be paid to the Player shall be on the basis as provided by Paragraph 11 herein.

Line 16 was likely included in player contracts to protect the league if it ever were to cease operations. Though the CFL has been in relatively stable financial shape over the past 20 years, but addressing the possibility of its demise remains prudent from a legal standpoint.

Most forms of compensation — report and pass bonuses, salaries, and playtime incentives — are not given until the season begins. Signing bonuses and off-season bonuses have been or are slated to be paid. Based on the language within CFL contracts, players who have received any kind of off-season bonuses would not be required to pay it back to the organization and be able to keep the money. 

As for salaries throughout the season, paragraph 11 stipulates that players are only entitled to compensation for work they’ve already provided. At this time, most players have not been earned a dollar since the end of the 2019 season because no games have been played in 2020. That could allow the CFL to suspend operations without paying its players any further cash.

If the league is forced to cancel, postpone or suspend the season, the wording will be key for legal purposes. In the event that the season is postponed, the league could argue that a delay does not constitute a suspension. But the CFL Players’ Union and agents could make a case the other way and argue their clients should be free agents.

According to sources, there is the potential for a scenario where all of the CFL players become free agents — an unforeseen possibility when the standard player contract was agreed upon in collective bargaining. The sudden possibility of teams having to revamp their rosters in an open market would be unprecedented.

For the players, it brings about an opportunity to pursue employment with another league — NFL or XFL. The CFLPA has filed a grievance regarding the failed recreation of the NFL window, an element of the new collective bargaining agreement which wasn’t cleared through the proper channels north and south of the border.

The CFL office would not comment on the potential voiding of contracts should the 2020 season be postponed or suspended. It is believed league headquarters is staying quiet on the matter because of the legal ramifications that could be on the horizon, due to the contract language.

Players with 2020 option years entered last season believing they would be free to workout and sign in the NFL following its conclusion. That didn’t happen, which left some players in limbo. One such athlete is Calgary Stampeders’ linebacker Nate Holley.The CFLPA filed a grievance on behalf of the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Rookie that has since gone to arbitration.

Holley is just one example. There are a number of other players that would have had NFL workouts, which could have given them a chance to sign, but it was wiped away because of the NFL option window gaffe. Younger players coming off a productive season would have been courted by NFL teams.

The suspension or postponement of the CFL season has created a number of issues for the league and CFLPA to work through, but Line 16 could be one of the most important.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.