CFL, CFLPA have differing views when it comes to workers’ compensation for players

Photos: Brett Holmes/CFL & Michael Scraper/3DownNation. Photo edit: 3DownNation.

The CFL and the CFL Players’ Association have differing views when it comes to the best way to care for the long-term medical needs of players who suffer serious injuries during their playing careers.

“Our view and the players’ view has differed. Ours is that we believe that the extension of long-term health benefits, which has been bargained and worked on together as partners, we think that is a really good solution for the league, it’s an economically feasible solution for the league. So our focus has been on making that system which we’ve already created work and the players have a different point of view,” commissioner Randy Ambrosie said during the league’s winter meetings.

The issue of player safety has been top of mind for the CFLPA since Jonathan Hefney, a defensive back for the Montreal Alouettes, suffered three fractured neck vertebrae on Oct. 1, 2015. He required a number of surgeries to regain the full use of his right arm but only one procedure was completed before Hefney’s medical coverage expired.

Hefney turned to crime to alleviate his financial distress and was arrested in November 2017, later receiving a sentence of three to nine years after pleading guilty to trafficking cocaine. He was released from prison on probation in December 2021.

“Health and safety is our primary goal, making sure that our members are taken care of,” CFLPA president Solomon Elimimian said during Grey Cup week. “What happened to Jonathan shouldn’t have happened. Jonathan went through a number of surgeries and he’s the reason why we’ve been fighting for WCB.”

Though the benefits of workers’ compensation differ by province, they generally cover the costs of medical treatment, wage loss for temporary loss of income, reimbursement for medication, an impairment assessment, and survivor benefits.

The risk of death occurring from an on-field injury is low, though it has happened before in the CFL. Tom Pate, a rookie linebacker for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, fell unconscious after hitting his head on the turf during a game on Oct. 18, 1975. He passed away three days later without ever regaining consciousness.

Damar Hamlin, a defensive back for the Buffalo Bills, recently collapsed during an NFL game and suffered cardiac arrest on the field. He was discharged following nine days in hospital and appears on his way to recovery, though there were initial concerns that his injury could have been fatal.

“What I’ve appreciated about the relationship with the players is we aren’t going to agree on everything and that’s OK. You can have a great relationship with somebody and not agree with them on everything that you’re talking about,” Ambrosie said.

“Ours is that we believe this solution that we’ve created is a really good one, certainly significantly better than where we were in the past. We want to focus on building that relationship, using that system and the players have a different point of view and we respect that.”

The union made inroads regarding player safety during the latest round of collective bargaining with the CFL, extending the coverage for medical care and rehabilitation costs for players from four to five years post-injury. At the time of Hefney’s injury, players who suffered long-term injuries were provided with just one year of coverage.

“That’s huge. That’s something that I’m very proud of,” Elimimian said. “Our work’s not done yet, we’re still pushing for WCB. We’ve made some tremendous strides in our pursuit of WCB but Jonathan Hefney and what he went through really spurred all this.”

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