‘The CFL is threatening to fundamentally change Canadian football’: CFLPA leadership sounds alarm over league’s CBA proposal, negotiation tactics

Photo courtesy: CFLPA

It must be nice to live in the world that exists within Randy Ambrosie’s head.

On Thursday afternoon, the CFL commissioner did his usual song and dance over a series of public appearances in Vancouver as part of his annual fan engagement tour, spouting optimism about the ongoing collective bargaining talks and talking glowingly of a new partnership with the players.

Minutes after he walked off the stage, the carefully crafted illusion shattered. The CFLPA sent a memo to its membership informing them that negotiations had stalled and that they had left talks early that same day, refusing an ultimatum made under the threat of a lawsuit from the league to guarantee players would report to training camp even if a strike was imminent.

Now, with days to go until the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on May 14, the CFL and the CFLPA are in open warfare. The months of spin and faux understanding pedaled by Ambrosie exposed as meaningless. After all, the commissioner is just a messenger, not even in the meetings and designed to be shot as protection for the hard-ball negotiators on the CFL’s Board of Governors, namely Hamilton’s Scott Mitchell and Winnipeg’s Wade Miller.

Forced to go public in order to keep their membership informed, the Canadian Football League Players’ Association says they aren’t looking to negotiate in the media. They are sounding alarm bells however, issuing a dire warning about what the league is currently offering them.

“With their latest proposal, the CFL is threatening to fundamentally change Canadian football. That worries our bargaining team and our membership and the CFL’s position should concern fans and league partners as well,” CFLPA president Solomon Elimimian said.

“The latest proposal by the CFL makes the game less safe, less competitive and desirable, provides less stability, dismisses the players’ important role as key partners in the game’s growth, and it makes it less Canadian.”

Executive director Brian Ramsay echoed that sentiment.

“We believe the CFL’s current position on a number of critical and outstanding items will have significant negative impacts, not only on our membership, but the game itself,” he warned.

The contents of the league’s current proposal, as depicted in the CFLPA memo, are damning. A ten-year agreement with no increases to the salary cap, rollbacks to current injury-prevention measures, and — most startlingly — the proposed elimination of the Canadian starting ratio in its entirety, as well as a reduction in the number of Canadian players.

The union is no stranger to facing hardline tactics from the league, but this appears to be less low-ball opening offer and more scorched earth power play.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way, as the two sides had worked closely together throughout the pandemic and saw some early progress in negotiations through an “interest-based” strategy. Yet the league has refused what the CFLPA says are repeated attempts to schedule more time for talks, dragging its feet to create the pressure of a deadline.

Now they are attempting to strong-arm players into traveling to their respective training camps without a deal in place, with the explicit understanding that teams won’t be covering their return airfare or accommodations should they strike on arrival. That runs contrary to the more positive approach that the CFL has so wistfully shared in the media for months.

“If we’re going to move forward as partners, then why do we always put ourselves in this position?” an exasperated Ramsay said.

“It’s hard for us not to think that it’s just simply a tactic by the CFL to try and bring our guys up for a day and then strand them, when they’re coming from all over the world and North America. We want to get away from that.”

After enduring significant hardship the past two years, overcoming first a canceled season and then a shortened one, there was hope that common ground could be found. There was momentum behind the upcoming season and a mutual desire to address issues like player continuity in order to grow the game.

Instead, the CFL has found itself embroiled in a series of pointless offseason controversies as it wanders around blindfolded looking for a magical solution that will cause revenue to explode. The latest, an effort to dramatically alter the Canadian ratio, has proven to be one of many sticking points in negotiations.

While neither Ramsay or Elimimian would provide additional details, they confirmed that the elimination of the Canadian starting ratio is on the table. While some believe that the league is simply angling for a reduction of the ratio and the addition of naturalized Canadian status for American veterans, the current proposal also calls for the elimination of the recently implemented veteran American status.

Ramsay wouldn’t address speculation as to how amenable the union might be to any ratio alterations, but made clear the current offer was not even close to acceptable.

“We understand the fundamental impact and importance that our game has in Canada,” he said. “We’re not going to go into specifics around exactly where our bargaining committee is at [on the ratio], but what we can tell you is our response to the proposal so far has been a flat no.”

Elimimian agreed, pushing back against those around the league that have attempted to justify attacks on the ratio with vague promises about an improved on-field product.

“You have to satisfy why any change — and I don’t want to be specific on the ratio — but why any change will improve the game as it respects to players and the product,” he insisted. “Some of those details have been missing.”

What would grow the game, in the union’s opinion, is properly compensating those who make that product possible and providing them the financial guarantees necessary to stay in markets long-term.

Those concerns could have been met weeks ago and a deal already signed if the league had heeded the CFLPA’s repeated calls for more meetings. Instead, they’ve chosen to back their most important partners into a corner.

“We shouldn’t be talking about a work stoppage. We should be talking about our great players and how excited they are for the season to start, getting them in front of our fans and being a part of those communities,” Elimimian said.

“Our players, after everything they’ve been through the last couple years — missing a total of 22 games — they don’t deserve this. It makes my blood boil because I know the sacrifice our members have made.”

The CFL seems to believe that those sacrifices have made the players weak, desperate to remain on the field and cashing paycheques. They see an opportunity to exploit their workers with an eleventh hour deal, refusing to meet with them again until Wednesday.

It is here that the Board of Governors appears to have truly miscalculated, because the CFLPA appears more galvanized than ever. After years of turmoil, players better understand their worth off the field and they’ve been bombarded with new resources. On Monday, they provided their executive an overwhelming strike mandate and don’t appear to be backing down.

“Our union has never been stronger,” Ramsay noted. “Our membership trusts their leadership. The challenges that we’ve all gone through, that our members have gone through, the last number of years, it’s bound us even closer together.”

That tends to happen when you put real work in, instead of spinning fairy tales.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.