One CFL team could lose five starters to COVID-19 opt outs; players call for salary guarantees

It’s been days since any word on the 2020 CFL season leaked out with the league, players and federal government remaining tight lipped on their ongoing negotiations.

TSN insider Dave Naylor made an appearance on TSN 1200 radio in Ottawa to give an update on the current hang ups between the sides, with one standing out in particular.

“They have come a long way in terms of getting things ready but there is a potential stopper in the deal here,” Naylor said.

“The players are looking for guarantees. If I’m playing for a third of my salary and I’m going to quit my job in Georgia or whatever else I might be doing to come to Winnipeg and play in a bubble, then I need to know that if we get a COVID outbreak 11 days into this thing and it all gets shut down, I’m not going home with nothing.”

Overcoming that obstacle is essential to getting a collective bargaining agreement done between the league and players, but also for enticing players to play in the shortened season. Star players like Brandon Banks and Delvin Breaux have already made known their intention to opt out, but in a follow-up piece, Naylor wrote that one CFL team he talked to last week expects to lose five starters to opt outs, three Canadians and two Americans. It was a topic Naylor also touched on in the interview.

“I was talking to a guy, a fairly prominent player in the league, a week ago and at the end of the conversation I asked him if he was going to play if he was asked to report to Winnipeg. He said not a chance,” Naylor said.

”He said ‘my body is worth more than a third of the CFL salary. To play this game and put my body at risk, I need to be compensated better than that.’ And that is before you even start to talk about the risk of COVID.”

Guaranteeing player salaries may entice a few of the players on the fence to reconsider and join their clubs in the Winnipeg bubble. It remains an issue because the collapse of a hub city season could result in massive further losses to the owners if player salaries are guaranteed.

“The players want their salaries guaranteed and I get that. I also get that the owners, who right now have no financial liability to the players, if they guarantee that would be taking on $20 million dollars in financial liability to the players,” Naylor said.

“You can understand why the owners, who are already neck deep in red ink under any scenario, aren’t necessarily anxious to do that. Its a fair request from the players and it’s also, I think, understandable why the owners might not want to do it.”

That is a significant rift between the players and league with little middle ground but Naylor suggests that one compromise might be found in an existing government program.

“One of the things that has come up with the players is ‘why are the coaches and other team employees getting paid and we’re not’. That has been all over Twitter. The reason for that, as I understand it, is their salaries are subsidized by the Canada Wage Subsidies program,” Naylor explained.

“The reason CFL players don’t qualify is because it is based on what you were earning in January, February and March before COVID shut everything down. In the case of CFL players, that was zero.”

“I believe if the season starts, they would then qualify for that subsidy if COVID shut everything down again. Maybe that is the compromise.”

That is still contingent on government approval, as is the loan the CFL desperately needs to make the season happen. On that front, Naylor is more optimistic.

“I don’t think the league would have extended things this far, past their own deadlines and into the second week of August, unless they thought there was a reasonable chance the government was going to give them the loan,” he said.

Some have feared that the government is attempting to run out the clock on the CFL season so they aren’t forced to make an unpopular decision either way, but the tenuous long term situation of the league could be a strong motivator.

“I don’t think the federal government is worried about the blowback of there not being a season,” Naylor said. “I think they are worried about the blowback of the league collapsing on their watch.”

The CFL will incur massive financial losses either way, but a shortened 2020 season would provide a small amount of relief. While a dismissal from the government would kill the season instantly, a positive response would cause a decision to be delayed into next week as the league tries to reach an agreement with the players and get an amended CBA ratified. That isn’t a rubber stamp process, with players deeply upset with their treatment and many unwilling to participate. That is the most uncertain part of the whole process for Naylor.

“How hard will the union fight to bridge that gap if their membership isn’t even sure that they want that?”