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Scope for the Canadian Football League and the players to negotiate a new collective agreement together

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When the Canadian Football League ditched padded training in the fall of 2017 to reduce injuries and added a third bye week to give players more rest, you might have thought the two teams would hold hands and sing Kumbaya during the press release was written.

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“Today we stand shoulder to shoulder on the important issue of player health and safety,” said Randy Ambrosie, who was then a newly hired commissioner. “We developed and agreed on these changes in a spirit of partnership and in pursuit of a common goal: making the game we all love safer for the elite athletes who inspire our fans with their skill and talent.”

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That was on September 13th. Just 20 days later, the CFL Players Association was a lot less rubbing shoulders with the league and a lot more in its face. The PA slammed the CFL for abandoning former Montreal defender Jonathan Hefney in the wind after he sustained his late-career spinal and nerve injuries in a game against Ottawa in October 2015, and received benefits just 12 months after career and Hefney’s expired long before his medical bills did.

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“It’s beyond anger that a player, due to an injury on the field during a CFL game, isn’t receiving the medical care they need to recover and move on with the rest of their life,” said Executive Director Brian said Ramsay at the time. “That should never happen and yet it is for Jonathan and other players. We want to work with the CFL to resolve this issue, possibly with compensation coverage for provincial workers so that no player has to ask for donations to pay for medically necessary treatments to get their lives back to normal.

“New CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has made excellent strides in dealing with player injuries with the recent ban on full-contact padding drills – this is another pressing issue that we hope to work with the league to resolve.”

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This about-face was a vivid example of their on-and-off relationship, which never quite grew into the partnership the CFL continues to claim it wants and PA says it would be happy to entertain.

Spurred on by Hefney’s ongoing personal tragedy — he’s jailed in South Carolina for cocaine trafficking, something he said was a last resort to paying $250,000 in arrears of child support and medical bills — players demanded better. When the next CBA was signed ahead of the 2019 season, coverage was increased to 36 months through the second year of the contract.

Lo and behold it’s a problem again because a 2020 season was lost to a pandemic, another was shortened as a result and the CFL is looking for ways to improve the product due to steadily declining attendance. His bargaining committee has suggested a return to padded exercise for once a week for a maximum of 12 weeks this season, despite three seasons’ worth of evidence pointing to a 35% reduction in injuries.

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Understandably, players have asked for consideration in this regard. If the CFL lets them beat their own teammates again, injuries will follow, so the league should be willing to take on additional financial pain by paying for a more comprehensive health and safety package.

It is one of the ultimate pillars on which this uniquely Canadian strike is built. Unique in that the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Elks aren’t actually on strike and won’t go on strike until Thursday afternoon. It is also unique because the players do not train in the other seven training camps, but are accommodated and fed by their respective teams.

“I don’t know how many employers (striking employees) would still feed and put a roof over your head,” said Winnipeg players’ representative Jake Thomas, who had a delicious lunch of chicken drumsticks, salad and rice on Tuesday. “The food is good. It’s camp food. I’ve been eating the same thing for 10 years. It’s exactly what I expected.”

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If it looks like an olive branch, it can also be considered a negotiation ploy. Batting players who are already at training camp may be more willing to bend at the last moment so their trip to Canada wasn’t a total waste of time. Batting players in the United States and Europe will find other things to do and let the negotiating committee negotiate the best possible deal.

But that is a pessimistic view of the process, and there is indeed reason for optimism. Despite the league’s apparent desire to pull off a resounding victory over the players each time the CBA is due, there’s still enough leeway here for the two sides to reunite and claim a win-win.

The league last week unveiled its goofy proposal for a 10-year deal with no salary cap increases, no Canadian quota, no consideration for guaranteed contracts for veteran free agents, and essentially no room for the storied partnership. Their current proposal, which they have made public, is for seven years, but should be five. In doing so, it matches the remaining years of the TSN broadcast deal, which is the financial lifeblood of the CBA. When it comes to health and safety, they need to expand player advantages if they want to resort to padded exercises. That leaves the ratio and revenue share.

“If you look at those four points, they’re huge, but we’re not that far off,” Thomas said. “The biggest thing is just the communication.”

In fact, they seem to have a uniquely Canadian detachment from industrial peace; Still far from a partnership, but close enough to shake hands, watch the hockey game tonight, and fight again another day.

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