The CFL has drawn the ire of the CFL Players' Association by directing its teams to stop paying players off-season bonuses until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached next year, a tactic the union says has driven a wedge between the two sides before contract talks have even begun.
Many CFL players now receive up-front money, in the form of either a signing or roster bonus, as part of their contracts. But the league has directed clubs to refrain from doing so this off-season until after a new agreement is ratified.
The current deal expires May 15, 2019. Players can sign contracts this off-season but won't receive any signing bonuses until after a new CBA is reached.
"I think everyone agrees we're looking for a fair agreement at the next bargaining session for everybody but this widens that gap prior to even sitting down," said Brian Ramsay, executive director of the CFLPA . "If the thought process is it's meant to speed up or assist bargaining, we vehemently disagree with that."
Former commissioner Jeffrey Orridge issued the directive in early 2017 and it's since been supported his successor Randy Ambrosie. A former CFL player and CFLPA secretary, Ambrosie has worked closely with the union since his appointment last summer and in September the two sides agreed to eliminate in-season full contact padded practices and move to a longer, 21-week schedule to enhance player safety.
"I don't think there's anything particularly nefarious about this," Ambrosie said of the directive. "I wasn't here when that decision was made but I respect its intent.
"We've just said we want everybody at the table with the same fundamental imperative that we have to get a deal done and not at the table with one party advantaged over the other. None of us, this league and the players, can afford a work stoppage."
But the directive is a contentious issue for the union.
"The action itself speaks so loud," said Ramsay. "It's an extremely aggressive tactic trying to circumvent the relationships that have been built.
"We don't see that being an equal playing field. That's the first discussion about bargaining, that positioning by them."
Traditionally, general managers have looked to re-sign players heading into the final year of their contracts or free agency to new deals that could include five- or six-figure bonuses. CFL contracts aren't fully guaranteed but players can keep bonus money even if released afterwards.
There's no financial benefit for teams as all cash paid to players counts against the salary cap. But if franchises have cap space at season's end, some GMs use it to pay bonuses and help reduce their cap hit the following year.
The ability to offer bonuses also allows GMs to sweeten the pot for their top players and help prevent losing them to another team. Often in CFL free agency there's very little difference between competing offers so up-front money becomes a powerful negotiating tool.
Not all CFL GMs are fans of off-season bonuses because in the past, players have taken the money and then retired with no obligation to pay back the money. Some general managers prefer having players report to camp and pass a physical before receiving their bonus.
Contract talks between the CFL and CFLPA were tumultuous in 2014. Negotiations broke down several times and there was a threat of a players' strike before both sides hammered out a five-year deal.
Ambrosie said if the CFLPA has concerns, the two sides should discuss them.
"If we're going to disagree we should do it behind closed doors and talk it through," he said. "I do want the guys (CFLPA executive and players) to know I'll do everything I can to have a respectful relationship with them.
"Agree to agree where we can, agree to disagree where we need to but fundamentally never lose sight of the big prize . . . a better, bigger, stronger CFL where everyone benefits."
Ramsay agreed that some conversations should be private.
"When it comes to the details of finding a solution and working on the relationship, that should be done behind closed doors," he said.
Some of the CFL's biggest names are scheduled to become free agents this off-season, including quarterbacks Mike Reilly of Edmonton, Calgary's Bo Levi Mitchell and Saskatchewan's Zach Collaros. The bonus moratorium and an uncertain 2019 salary cap are two challenges GMs and player agents will face.
The CFL and CFLPA won't have to worry about the resurrection of the XFL during contract talks. World Wrestling Entertainment boss Vince McMahon announced Thursday he's reviving the renegade spring league to resume play in 2020.
The XFL died in 2001 after one year of operation.
"Anytime you have another hungry mouth to feed . . . . I think you have to say, of course, it could affect us," Ambrosie said. "He (McMahon) has been in this sport before, he's a big visionary but quite frankly I think it's time for us to have a bigger vision than his.
"Think about our game as a 12-month business where we have six months of football and six months of everything else revolving around our great athletes. If we can do that, I'm confident our players will be happy and the league will be stronger."
(Dan Ralph/Canadian Press)