Stephen Brunt’s case for the CFL as a developmental league is worth consideration

One of the debates that always comes up in CFL circles is around how tightly the league should fight to hang on to its players. Given the vast salary discrepancy between the CFL and the NFL (a NFL rookie will make a minimum of $405,000 this season, while the CFL average salary is likely close to $60,000 and many make far less), it's not surprising that most of those who have a chance to look for bigger exposure and bigger paydays in the southern league do so. For some CFL fans and executives, that's a problem, and that's resulted in efforts to keep players north of the border such as the removal of the NFL option year and the Tiger-Cats' attempt to retain an unhappy Chris Williams. For others, though, having top players for a short period is seen as better than reducing the amount of top-tier players who want to try the CFL: that's led to efforts to reinstate the NFL option and teams like Toronto releasing top players like Armond Armstead so they can try the NFL waters. Adherents of the latter school there are often painted as wanting to turn the CFL into an NFL developmental league, but in a recent issue of Sportsnet magazine, famed Canadian sportswriter and radio host Stephen Brunt eloquently makes the case that developing talent for the NFL isn't necessarily a complete negative:

The typical American player arrives in a CFL camp because he has failed to be noticed by or stick with an NFL team. The vast majority of them understandably harbour NFL dreams and will head back the minute they can.

That’s not a bad thing for the CFL. Better to have players like Cameron Wake (who, with B.C., led the CFL in sacks in 2008 before signing with Miami) for a few seasons than not at all. And better to have others who aren’t that good, but think they are, believe that coming north and playing for a relative pittance is an alternative to getting on with their non-football lives. ...

The truth is, they’d be better off letting [Williams] go, however painful that might be, and reopening the option window, encouraging the free flow of football players back and forth across the great unguarded border.

The CFL might be able to live without him, but it can’t thrive without the next Chris Williams, and the next one after that. Whatever the patriotic rhetoric, whatever the size of our balls, our game is made better by Americans, even when they’re just visiting.

Brunt's entire piece is worth your time, but what's particularly notable is that he hits on a truth many who criticize the developmental model miss: for every Chris Williams, Cameron Wake or Brandon Browner, there are 50 CFL players who dream of being them, but aren't able to stick south of the border. The CFL is able to attract some solid American talent largely because of its well-established nature (particularly in comparison to many non-NFL circuits south of the border) and its reputation as a place where the best can shine and prove their case to play in the NFL. While this inevitably means that some CFL stars will wind up leaving and never returning after a season or two, their numbers pale by comparison to those who harbour NFL dreams but never quite get there.

It's that illusion of NFL hope that's a key selling point the CFL uses to draw in American recruits from a vast collection of backgrounds, and that's a large part of why so many reasonably-prominent players are willing to face massive odds just for a CFL shot. That's not to say that those who want to keep American stars around for longer don't have a point: of course it's important to get the top calibre of talent the CFL can find and keep it around as long as possible. Restrictive measures aimed at keeping that talent north of the border don't happen in isolation, though, and they'll have an impact on future player recruitment. As Brunt points out, debates over how the CFL should handle players like Chris Williams are never just about that specific situation. They have to be viewed in the larger context of talent recruitment and retention, and trying to improve retention will perhaps have a negative effect on recruitment.

Overall, the crucial message may be that despite its connotations, the idea of a "developmental" league isn't completely bad. Yes, a CFL that turns into an out-and-out minor league for the NFL (such as the American Hockey League or the NBA Developmental League) likely wouldn't be a positive. The advantages of pulling in even more talent would be offset by that talent being called up to NFL teams midseason, and it would be very difficult to maintain the unique Canadian character of the CFL if it was closely joined to the NFL. Being seen as a high-profile place where those overlooked by the NFL can try and make their way to that league isn't as bad, though, and that's why it's so important to have solid American television deals and contractual agreements that don't keep talented players away. There's a balance between retention and recruitment that needs to be struck, of course, and there's a worthwhile debate to be had over where that balance lies. However, the importance of pieces like Brunt's is that they show that "developmental" doesn't always have to be a vulgar word.