Think of a collective bargaining agreement between the Canadian Football League and the CFL Players Association as a Jenga tower.
The one at issue currently is made up of about 25 negotiated items, or blocks if you will; some administrative, some financial, and some health and safety. Remove an administrative block here or there with little or no risk, add it to the top of the teetering pile and finish your turn unscathed.
But touch the wrong one — in this case the foundational Canadian ratio block, painted bright red and white — and the entire thing goes down in a heap.
That’s where the CFL and the players find themselves for the second time in a week, on the precipice of another disastrous collapse. This one was set in motion by an overwhelming player rejection of the previous tentative agreement for a seven-year CBA. The bargaining committees for the players and the league had come to an understanding last week on those 25 issues, give or take. Some were safe bets, others were not. Painted red and white as it was, the Canadian ratio stood out to some as a potential problem, and sure enough, a majority of players looked right past the massive concessions received on revenue sharing and salary cap, guaranteed contracts, medical benefits, term and expiry date, to focus mostly on the ratio. And they didn’t like what they saw.
“It wasn’t close,” said one source, asked about the player vote.
The absence of a ratification bonus became an issue too. It’s essentially enticement money paid directly to the CFLPA membership in exchange for their approval of the deal. It is often considered a consolation prize; up-front money for accepting a CBA that wasn’t as good as it might otherwise have been.
In this case, the players’ bargaining committee had carved out what looked like a stellar package that took care of future CFLers, but it did not include a ratification bonus, and that mattered to some current players. Not as much as the ratio, perhaps, but enough to cause discomfort.
On Tuesday, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said the league addressed both of those issues in a new and final proposal to the players that must be approved by Thursday at midnight. He didn’t say ‘or else’ but it was obvious.
“This accomplished what everyone thought we needed to do,” said Ambrosie. “We needed to find a way to set up the league and the players for long-term success and we’ve done that. There comes a point where you just have to stop tinkering, but in the spirit of good faith our bargaining committee thought there were two last adjustments they could accommodate. Now we think it’s time for both sides to see this is in fact the transformational opportunity and we just have to get going now.”
The league believes it has done enough to avoid a devastating work stoppage by addressing the two prime player concerns.
“We did a little moving of the furniture, took some money away from the back end where we believe our revenue sharing formula will out-perform, and moved it into a $1 million pool of ratification money,” said Ambrosie. “We felt good about that.”
A source said it will amount to about $2,000 per player, shared equally by the nine teams. That’s not insignificant money to some players who have lost 22 game cheques to a cancelled 2020 season and a shortened 2021 campaign. However, it essentially gives future player money to current veterans, and while that might be enticing to some, surely others will see past their own bottom lines to what will be good for the league years from now.
But the more contentious issue is the Canadian ratio. The league started with the hardest of hard lines – no protection at all – and walked it back through the course of negotiations to a complicated formula that allowed for three nationalized Americans, all designated imports, to take up to 49% of the snaps for the seven Canadian starters. It preserved the Canadian starters’ game-time bonuses, but was seen as a significant erosion of the ratio. The final offer is for one nationalized American to be able to play as one of the seven Canadian starters.
“The previous version was three nationalized Americans playing 49%,” said Ambrosie. “So let’s just call that, for argument sake, one and a half players or player positions, and we replaced that with one nationalized American,” said Ambrosie. “So we did what we felt was a responsible thing to do to try to get a deal done at the 11th hour and avoid any kind of disruption.
“We’ve got two games on Friday, two games on Saturday. And after that, and here’s the problem, we all start to lose together. This is the best arrangement we’ll have, and after this just by virtue of circumstance, the situation for both sides gets poor.”
The PA leadership did not immediately respond to a request for comment. If they won’t take this deal to the players, or if the players reject it for its effect on the ratio and a second strike is called, training camps will shut down. Players will be allowed time to vacate, but they will no longer be fed or housed by their respective teams as had been the case during the four-day work stoppage.
“If there is another strike, remembering we are now going to be into lost revenue, we are going to at that point close up our training camps,” said Ambrosie. “At that stage, we’re going to be in a protection mode and a preservation mode because the losses will start piling up.”
With revenues and a full season at stake, the pressure builds and the players have to make the next move.
“I just have to hope that in the end, the players will see all the benefits in this and vote to ratify, if given the opportunity,” said Ambrosie.
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