As CFL-CFLPA talks go on, will the sides be able to agree on player-safety proposals?

The CFL and its players' association are still meeting Thursday following 12 hours of meetings once negotiations restarted Wednesday, and there's plenty for them to talk about. While the fundamental divide between the sides remains a revenue-tied cap versus a flat cap (although a workable deal really could be struck under either system), and while financial proposals are probably the primary focus of these meetings, there are other issues at play as well. One crucial one is player safety. The league and the union both agree that it's important, and both have proposed measures to improve it, but their solutions are drastically different, with the sides particularly divided on the value of independent neurologists. If a new collective bargaining agreement is struck after all, what player-safety measures will it include?

It's the players' proposals that are likely to be the most controversial, as they go much further than the current situation. Chief amongst their ideas is requiring an independent neurologist on the sidelines for every game. There are a lot of benefits to that idea, one that's been discussed for years, and it's one that the NFL (a league not exactly known for proactive concussion policies in the past) brought in for the 2013 season. However, the league appears strongly opposed. When I spoke to CFL president and COO Michael Copeland last week about why the league went public with its CBA proposal, I asked him about the players' proposals for independent neurologists. Copeland said CFL teams already employ some of Canada's top doctors, which the league views as enough.

"Our medical doctors are among the very best in the country," he said. "They lead the discussion in this regard. The commitment they have to our players never should be questioned."

Copeland said team doctors also know the players they're working with and their histories, which he sees as an advantage.

"They have a pre-existing relationship with the player," he said. "An independent neurologist does not have that familiarity."

The case for independent neurologists is that it lessens the conflicts of interest caused by a doctor working for the team (not the players), but Copeland said that shouldn't be a concern.

"Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath," he said. "They would put that above any employer-employee relationship."

Well, they haven't historically. There are plenty of examples of NFL team doctors (and even those on the NFL's concussion committee) ignoring the best interests of players in favour of the interests of the teams or the league. Granted, that hasn't been proved the same way in Canada, and the smaller amounts of money at stake in the CFL may make a difference (and may also make it cost-prohibitive to hire independent neurologists). Still, this league's concussion treatment has also been far from perfect in recent years, with some players going back in after taking hits to the head only to later be diagnosed with concussions, and others saying they "got their bell rung" and admitting to fuzziness but being allowed to keep playing. Of course, we don't know that team doctors acted improperly in those situations, or that an independent neurologist would have decided differently (see the Sept. 8 entry here for an example of a similar situation happening in the NFL this past season, even with independent neurologists). The CFL's dismissal of the idea of independent neurologists out of hand is surprising, though, especially considering that the NFL's gone to it despite its past history of poor handling of concussions.

Two of the players' other safety proposals seem strong, and more likely to be accepted. They want a mandatory concussion seminar for all football operations employees (coaches, trainers, equipment personnel, sideline staffers and players) during training camp, and that really should happen. The CFL has spoken positively about the importance of concussion education in the past, and there are already some efforts along these lines, but a mandatory seminar for everyone involved seems like a good idea. The players' proposal that the league also set aside at least $100,000 each year for concussion research (research jointly agreed on by the union and league) also appears positive. The league already does invest in some concussion research, but setting a required level each year, making that a mandated part of the CBA and having players involved in determining where the money goes might not only help accomplish more, it might also be a PR bright spot for the CFL and something it could point to whenever concussions are discussed. (Of course, $100,000 annually isn't much compared to say, the $30 million study the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Defense announced Thursday, but for the CFL, it seems quite reasonable, and it could definitely do some good.)

The players' other proposal, providing for players to be able to obtain a second opinion from a doctor of their choice following an injury, also seems positive on first glance. That provides the independence discussed above. However, Copeland said players already can seek a second opinion from Canadian doctors; the proposed change would just see teams paying for them to go to the U.S. for a second opinion, which would prove very expensive. There's merit to the league's position there; while players ideally should be able to go anywhere they want for medical treatment, in practice there's a massive cost difference between doing that in Canada and the U.S., and it's not like Canadian medicine is subpar. Thus, it's hard to see this one being accepted.

What about the CFL's player-safety ideas? The league's new proposals on player safety are to restrict the number of contact practices during the regular season and adding two players to each team's active roster, and it's hard to see the players objecting too strenuously to that. Contact in practices is thought to be a significant cause of concussions (the key safety issue for this league), with Dr. Julian Bales of the Brain Injury Research Institute telling Wired in 2012 "We believe that more than 60 percent of the concussions that occur in football happen during practice." The CFL and CFLPA agreed to reduce contact during training camp last year, and that seemed to work well (despite some resistance), so maintaining that during camps and extending it to the regular-season is a logical step.

Adding more players to the active roster also seems positive; that would reduce the number of players who have to take part on both special teams and offence or defence, and thus reduce the amount of contact individual players receive during a game. That's also boosting the salaries of CFLPA members, which isn't a bad thing either. (More active roster players does mean that there would be less salary cap money for high-end players, but that's still probably something the union wouldn't mind.) What's interesting is that the league hasn't specified if these new players would be imports, non-imports or one of each, though. Things always get complicated when considering changes to the import ratio. Still, this seems like something the CFLPA will probably accept.

Thus, the league proposals seem likely to work their way into a new CBA (if one is signed), and the players' ideas on league-funded concussion research and seminars may well appear in some form as well. The players' request for U.S. second opinions doesn't seem too likely to get far given the costs involved and the lack of tangible benefits. The independent neurologist debate could prove very interesting, though. The players have a strong case for it, but the CFL has rejected that idea thus far. That could prove another sticking point in these negotiations, and it could make these talks drag on.