Representatives of the Canadian Football League and the CFL Players’ Association will gather at an airport hotel in Toronto on Wednesday morning, with less than 100 hours to go before the deadline to execute a new collective agreement.
Getting the deal put to bed a few days before the existing CBA expires at midnight on Saturday would avoid some of the drama that accompanies the uncertainty over training camps opening Sunday and the season starting on time.
To be clear, we’ve been down this road before.
The issues may be different this time – the players are looking for an improved guarantee of future revenues, the league is looking for roster flexibility and the introduction of “naturalized” Canadians, and both sides are looking for ways to slow roster turnover – but the tone of disenchantment coming from the players’ side is not unique at this stage of negotiations.
The union has told its members to stay in their off-season homes until it sees what the league brings to the table on Wednesday. Many players, however, are already in their cities or on their way.
The teams have promised players they will be housed and fed throughout the training camp period, regardless of if there is a strike or not.
The CFLPA has told veteran quarterbacks not to participate in three-day rookie camps, which begin Wednesday, as they normally do.
After not meeting formally since last Thursday, the league has indicated to the players that it will arrive on Wednesday with a new proposal in hand.
How the players react to the new proposal will determine whether there’s a bumpy or smooth ride to the finish line.
But history tells us this will get done.
Work stoppages in sports have become rare because the issues that most often drove them in the past have largely been addressed. Battles over salary caps and more liberalized free agency shut down seasons and dominated headlines from the 1980s to the early 2000s.
There has been a CFL salary cap since the late 1980s, and the league has as liberal a form of free agency as you’ll find in professional sports.
Work stoppages have been rare in the CFL, and in professional football in general.
The CFL’s only work stoppage was a 12-day strike during training camp of 1974 when the union fought for the establishment of a minimum wage, set at $11,000.
There hasn’t been a meaningful work stoppage in football since the 1987 NFL strike, during which players crossed picket lines to return to their jobs right alongside replacement players.
That experience demonstrated the difficulty of keeping union resolve in a sport where players have short careers and where competition for jobs is never-ending, with contracts rarely guaranteed.
The CFL’s bargaining team has historically taken advantage of this dynamic, understanding it’s easier to keep a group of nine together than a group of 500. That’s why they’ve generally come out on the winning side when all is said and done.
In the CFL, where players don’t have the individual wealth of players in larger professional sports, and where some are here for the experience more than the salary, keeping everyone united might be even tougher.
There are reasons for optimism. These two bargaining teams are not only experienced, but experienced with each other, having negotiated through the pandemic as circumstances changed the business of the sport.
CFL teams, fans and players have waited an awfully long time to get back to normal – to full seasons and full stands and the restoration of the business.
It’s certainly not in the interests of either side to have hundreds of football players being housed and paid for by the teams while the league and union grind away with training camp on hold.
If that happens, it will be the first shocker of the 2022 CFL season.