FILOSO: When it comes to COVID-19 free agency, the CFL got it wrong

2020 has been a hell of a year — COVID-19 made sure of that.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

The pandemic forced many to work from home, avoid seeing friends and family, changed our daily routines, cancelled or delayed trips and fundamentally altered the sports landscape, at least for this year.

For the CFL, it meant months of doubt over whether any games would take place in 2020, and finally a decision came to outright cancel the season. In hindsight, with skyrocketing cases across North America, it turned out to be the right call.

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But in a year when we’ve gotten used to change and doing things using new and novel approaches, it was disappointing to see the CFL stick to its traditional contract structure and allow hundreds of players to hit the free agent market.

Stick with me here.

Given that there was no season at all, the league should’ve done the most logical thing possible and simply rolled over every deal. Be it players, coaches, administrators or scouts, the league should’ve mandated that since there was no season in 2020, every contract should’ve simply skipped into 2021.

In the interest of fairness, the league should also have provided anyone on a deal that would have expired in 2020 the option to opt out, penalty free. Doing so would’ve empowered all involved.

For players whose contracts expired in 2020, they would’ve been faced with a choice. Carry over the deal into 2021, enjoy some stability and guarantee a spot in training camp unless cut beforehand. Otherwise, they could’ve chosen to take their chances on the market.

For teams, it would’ve meant more stability instead of squads now facing the monumental task of re-signing an average of 30-some players. How silly does it look that teams that signed players to one-year deals back in February never got to see them on the field and are already forced to renegotiate to bring them back?

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One could argue that if every player with an expiring chose not to opt out, their teams would be stuck flush against the cap. In that case, teams could simply cut players or restructure contracts, as they so often do, to create cap space. Wouldn’t that still be a better solution than a mass exodus and more roster turnover in a league in which fans already struggle to connect with players thanks to frequent movement?

With the way things are now, players are about to get the short end of the stick. The free agent market is set to be flooded with more players than ever before. Not only will teams be hesitant to provide any kind of signing bonuses, reports have already surfaced that general managers across the league will collude to ensure that everyone spends only to the salary floor. Even if a player were to re-sign with their current team, they’ll likely be forced to take a pay cut to do so.

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The same concept should’ve gone for coaches too. Some teams have already come out and stated that their coaching staff from 2020 will all return for 2021, but other teams have already begun thinning their ranks. Those coaches will face more competition than ever before to find new jobs and the jobs that are available will be fewer and in higher demand.

Again, this could all have been avoided by simply rolling over everyone’s 2020 contracts into 2021 by giving those involved a hard date to opt out if that was the desired course of action. In a year unlike any other the league has faced, a no-nonsense solution in which everyone came together to find an avenue that not only worked for all but that shared power could’ve been an excellent first step towards building cooperation that could’ve extended towards other endeavours.

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General managers and coaching staffs would’ve had more certainty about who they have at their disposal for next season and could spend months scheming how to maximize those talents. Players would head into the winter knowing they were training for a purpose, safe in the knowledge that, barring an unexpected release, they’d be returning to their club in May for training camp. And for those that opted out, they’d feel comfortable betting on themselves.

It’s almost unheard of in pro sports that there is a balanced solution that works for both teams and players without putting the other at a disadvantage, but the simple decision to not count 2020 and carry over deals into 2021, with the option to opt out, could’ve been a true sporting unicorn.

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Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).