The CFL only has itself to blame for current labour strife

Photo courtesy: CFL

It was supposed to be a day of jubilation.

Instead, it is a day of frustration and anger.

After all that we have been through as a society over the last two years, Sunday was the day when normalcy was finally set to return.

Instead, it’s another kick in the teeth to CFL fans.

Sunday was the day that CFL training camps were scheduled to open across the country, a day diehard fans have been waiting for since the final whistle blew in last year’s Grey Cup.

Now, fans are back to wondering when their beloved Canadian football will return to the field after the league and the Canadian Football League Players’ Association failed to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement on Saturday.

As it stands now, CFL players around the country, except those who play for the two teams in Alberta, are on strike.

This is the first work stoppage in the CFL since 1974.

So instead of fans heading down to their local team’s first training camp practices of the new season, we are all left to try and figure out how we got to this point.

A lot of things led us here but I do want to make one thing abundantly clear: most of the blame for this lies with the league itself.

It is hard to blame the players for turning down the deal the league made as its final offer on Saturday. Was that offer a better one than the offer before it? Sure, but that’s like saying a kick in the face is better than a kick in the groin.

Improving on the league’s initial offer wasn’t going to be hard. That first offer, a 10-year pact with no increases in the salary cap over the term of the agreement and a drastic reduction in the Canadian ratio, was insulting to everyone involved and the league should be ashamed it was even made. I get that asking for the moon is a good negotiation tactic — one I have also used when asking for raises at previous jobs — but that offer took it a step too far.

The offer made Saturday — at least the parts that were made public — was better, but not by much. If that was the first offer, I think we would have been well on our way to a new CBA being signed before the old one expired at 12:01 a.m. on May 15. But as a take-it-or-leave-it final offer, it just wasn’t good enough.

The commissioner can publish all the open letters he wants, throwing around numbers in the tens of millions to make the deal sound better than it actually was, but we all know that was nothing more than a finely tuned public relations stunt meant to curry favour with fans who just want their football back.

The league, attempting to use the same strong-arm tactics that had proven to be successful in the past, failed to account for a new resolve from the players. The league used the tried and true “get them to camp and they’ll be forced to take a lesser deal” approach and it didn’t work.

But why?

Why after using this successfully in several previous CBA negotiations did that same strategy not work this time around?

The CFL was one of the only professional leagues that did not play games in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While other leagues, even others within Canada, found ways to successfully execute seasons during the worst of the pandemic, the CFL shut down for almost 18 months, not returning to the field until last summer.

I am not judging the league for its failure to stage a 2020 campaign, but their inability to play games that year might be one of the reasons they couldn’t use the same bully tactics that had proven extremely successful in the past.

During the time the league suspended operations, we saw a lot of players find different avenues for employment. Players finding new things to do with their lives led to the plethora of retirements that occurred before the resumption of play in 2021.

Perhaps one of the reasons the players have shown such resolve during these rounds of CBA negotiations is that they have seen what life is like without the game of football in their lives and they know they will be just fine.

The league was operating during these negotiations like everything was how it was before. They overplayed their hand, essentially calling the players’ bluff, and it backfired.

As a fan of the CFL, I was very much looking forward to heading down to McMaster University on Sunday morning to take in Hamilton’s first training camp session so I could get a first-hand look as the team began its 2022 journey.

Instead, I sit here penning this column wondering when I will get a chance to hear the sounds of pads popping or when I can start to better get to know the players who will make up the 2022 edition of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Whether or not you support the players’ decision to strike is up to you, but know that the only reason we are in this position is that the league, not the players, walked away from the bargaining table after not getting what they wanted.

After the Players’ Association agreed to several concessions to help get the 2021 season off the ground, the league needed to reciprocate that during these negotiations.

They failed to do that, so now here we are.

If there is blame to lay or wrath to aim, I implore you to aim it at the correct people.

Not at the men who perform on the field for your enjoyment, but at the ones who make the decisions off it.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.