CFL fines Eskimos $10,000 for tampering with Odell Willis, but will that deter teams?

The amount of tampering that's thought to go on in the CFL is substantial, but although the league bylaws prohibit the practice (defined as contacting or negotiating with a player who another club holds the rights to), it's rare to see any action taken over it. That happened Wednesday, though, with the CFL fining the Edmonton Eskimos for tampering with Odell Willis. The Willis signing looked suspicious right from the start, as it was announced only four minutes after he became a free agent, and the spectre of tampering always hung over it. It's unusual to see a team actually fined for this, though. This seems like a good move on the CFL's part, as bylaws aren't worth the paper they're printed on if you don't uphold them, but the question is if one $10,000 fine to one club in a particularly blatant case is enough to really serve as a deterrent to future tampering.

Of course, $10,000 isn't insignificant, but it's not a huge amount of money for a CFL team. Consider the Eskimos' 2010 financial statements, where their regular (recurring) revenues exceeded their regular expenses by $173,818. Although you'd need need to sell a fair amount of tickets to make $10,000, it's less than 1/17th of that total profit. Moreover, having a good on-field product is crucial to making money in this league; much of teams' income depends on gate revenues, concession and store purchases, and those all tend to rise when the team's doing well. Edmonton general manager Ed Hervey clearly thinks Willis can help his team succeed, and there's some reason to believe he may be right. Although Willis only recorded six sacks with Saskatchewan last year, he was one of the Bombers' key defensive players in their 2011 run to the Grey Cup game, and was the CFL's co-leader with 13 sacks that year. If Willis can return to that level of form, he might be a crucial part of improving the Eskimos' team, and a significantly-improved team could bring in revenues that make that $10,000 look like chump change awfully quickly.

Moreover, penalties that are strictly financial are problematic, as the CFL's clubs are not on an equal financial footing. It's no secret that teams like the Eskimos and Roughriders tend to draw more fans and make much more money than the Argonauts or Tiger-Cats. Thus, a fine is much less worrying to them than it might be to a team with a less solid financial picture. (It's notable that the Roughriders have been the team most frequently fined for salary cap violations.) Of course, no team wants to be caught tampering or caught going over the cap, but if there's a case that doing either can help the team on (and thus, off) the field and the only risk is a fine they can easily afford, many game theory models would advocate doing so whenever possible. That's not to say that CFL teams are out to cheat; it's to say that the disproportionate incentives and penalties can be seen as an enticement to break the rules.

It's notable that the league has partly addressed this on the cap violation side, making it so that substantial violations include stripping a team of draft picks as well as money. Perhaps that should be done with tampering as well. Simply put, when the only possible penalty is a financial one (and a relatively small financial one at that), there will always be plenty of cases where the reward trumps the risk, especially for teams with deeper pockets. If you throw in a potential on-field penalty (such as the loss of a draft pick), though, that could be a much stronger deterrent.

Of course, the challenge is proving that tampering happened. A signing as quick as the Willis one may smell off to everyone, but proof's required for things like this, and the CFL isn't a specialized investigative bureau (nor should it become one; there are better things to spend league resources on). Moreover, if the Eskimos had been a little smarter and waited a few more minutes to announce the Willis deal, it's possible tampering never would have been detected. (According to Rod Pedersen, announcing the deal so quickly was Hervey's own contribution to the plan: file that one in the "Bad Ideas" folder.) The overall takeaway is that tampering certainly appears common in this league, and it sure doesn't appear like a $10,000 fine's going to stop it. The CFL seems quite right to take the Eskimos to task here, as the Willis signing was particularly blatant, but don't expect tampering to just die off thanks to this incident.

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