Should the CFL go to a harder salary cap?

Wednesday's news that the Saskatchewan Roughriders were the only team to exceed the CFL's salary cap in 2013 (they spent $4,417,975 in salaries, $17,975 over the cap) is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, this breaks one pattern; the 2011 and 2012 seasons both saw no team go over the cap, the first seasons since at least 2007 with no violations. However, it reinforces another pattern of Saskatchewan being the team most willing to flirt with the cap line; the Roughriders were over the cap in 2007, 2008 and 2010, and they've committed four of the six reported cap violations under the salary management system first implemented in 2006. (The others came from Montreal in 2007 and Winnipeg in 2009).

The CFL has a sliding system of cap-violation penalties, though, and Saskatchewan has never exceeded the cap by enough to pay any penalty beyond a monetary fine (unlike the Alouettes, who lost a first-round draft pick in 2007 for exceeding the cap by $108,285). Thus, in essence, the Riders are just simply working with a higher cap than the rest of the league. Is that desirable, or should the cap rules be tightened to prevent it? There's a chance to revisit the rules this year thanks to the ongoing CBA negotiations, so it's worthwhile exploring how they currently work and how they could change.

It's important to note that this isn't a case of "cheating"; Saskatchewan is working within the CFL's established rules. It also would be problematic to assume that the Riders' front office sets out to go over the cap; the CFL's cap audits look at all forms of player compensation, including bonuses, and it seems highly likely a lot of Saskatchewan players hit contractual bonuses in a season that saw them lift the Grey Cup. Every team has to account for bonuses and injuries, though, and yet it always seems to be the Riders who wind up over the cap. That suggests they're leaving themselves less room between their expected payroll and the cap than most other teams.

Again, that's not illegal, and it's probably quite smart for Saskatchewan. The penalty for being over the cap is only $1 for every dollar up to $100,000, and teams don't start losing draft picks until they violate the cap by more than $100,000. (For violations of $100,000 to $300,000, the penalty is $1 for every dollar up to $100,000, $2 for every dollar above $100,000 and the loss of a first-round draft pick; for violations of $300,000 or more, the penalties are as above, but with the loss of a second-round pick added, as well as a fine of $3 for every dollar spent above $300,000). The Riders have never violated the cap by more than $100,000 under this system, so they've never lost a draft pick, and their only consequence has been financial. For the CFL's richest team, that definitely seems like an acceptable tradeoff. In fact, it's curious that they didn't exceed the cap in 2011 and 2012 as well.

While it may be strategic for the Riders to play close to the cap under the current rules, that does raise a debate about if the rules should be altered to more of a hard-cap system (which prevents teams from going over it at all or punishes them extensively if they do). The CFL's cap is harder than some leagues such as the NBA, which allows wealthy teams to violate the cap substantially as long as they're willing to pay massive luxury taxes, but it's softer than what's seen in the NFL or NHL. The softer a cap is, the less effective it tends to be at equalizing the playing field between wealthy and poor teams. There are other factors involved in that, of course, including the gap between the cap's floor and ceiling (where the CFL does very well, incidentally), but allowing penalties for exceeding the cap to be merely financial up to a certain point incentivizes rich teams to exceed the cap, as the penalty doesn't negate the advantage gained.

This is like the NCAA's rule on pass interference, which awards a maximum of 15 yards regardless of how far the pass travelled (unlike the NFL and CFL, which make it a spot foul). Giving up 15 yards is far preferable to conceding a touchdown, so it would logically make sense for a defender beat deep to try and interfere. Spot fouls make the penalty more commensurate to the crime and discourage taking those penalties. Similarly, a harder salary cap would discourage teams from violating it. At the moment, there's plenty of incentive for wealthy teams to spend close to or exceed the cap.

What could that look like? Well, there are plenty of options. The hardest-line option would be to go very strict and say that cap violations are completely impermissible; teams that exceed the cap could have victories and championships stripped away, as happened to Australia's Melbourne Storm rugby team. That seems too harsh for the CFL, but taking away multiple draft picks from a team isn't inconceivable. Alternatively, the loss of even just a first-round draft pick appears to have deterred every team but the 2007 Alouettes, so the league could make it that any cap violation leads to the loss of a first-rounder as well as a fine. Think that a violation of $17,975 like the Riders' isn't that consequential? There's an even softer alternative; make small violations lead to the loss of a late-round draft pick, and just escalate the pick lost for more substantial violations.

All of these systems would have the advantage of delivering some form of on-field punishment rather than just a monetary fine, and that would accomplish the cap's seeming goal of levelling the playing field between wealthy and poor teams. Of course, if the league and its teams believe that the current system is good enough, that's also an option. In that instance, though, no one should complain when a rich team exceeds the cap slightly. They're only doing what they're incentivized to do; using their wealth to their advantage.