Can the CFLPA stay united in CBA talks?

55 Yard Line

While the CFL Players' Association appears to be in a much stronger position than they have historically in their ongoing collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the CFL, there still are threats to their cause, and one of the most prominent may be the chance of a divided union. The league clearly believes that some players may be more receptive to their proposal than the CFLPA's negotiating committee has been, as shown by their drastic decision Wednesday to send a letter to all players (and the public at large) with the details of their latest offer; CFL president and chief operating officer Michael Copeland told 55-Yard Line "We were of the belief all the players needed to understand our side of the story." That belief may not be mistaken, either; there haven't been many outright signs of internal dissension within the players' association so far, but this is a union that represents a lot of players in vastly different situations, from well-paid quarterbacks to long-tenured Canadian players to young American players hoping to make the CFL a quick stop on their path to the NFL. Will CFLPA president Scott Flory and the rest of the union executive be able to hold such a diverse coalition together through a potential strike?

It's notable that there have been some CFLPA divides in the past, in particular in 2009 when CBA discussions turned to trying to reduce the number of Canadian starters. Nothing came of that in the end, but it set up a clear import/non-import divide; less starting slots for Canadians would hurt the non-import members of the CFLPA, but benefit the import ones. The gap may not be as clear-cut this time around, though, as changing the ratio hasn't received much discussion. (The CFL does want to add two players to each team's active roster; there's been no mention of whether those slots will be for imports or non-imports, but the numbers there probably aren't significant enough to form an import/non-import divide regardless of what the plan is.) Instead, it would seem more likely that a gap could form between players who intend to be in this league for their whole career and players looking at it as a pathway to the NFL.

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There's no clear evidence that such a divide already exists, but it seems the CFL is trying to play to it in case it does arise. The most notable change between the league proposal that leaked last week and the one they officially released Wednesday wasn't in the size of the cap in the end, which would have been $5,000,000 per team under the old offer and $5,050,000 under the new one (but a year sooner, as the new proposal is for seven years, not eight). Instead, the big change comes this year; the old proposal would boost the cap just $100,000 this year and continue increases of $50,000 or $100,000 after that, but the new one offers an immediate boost of $400,000, followed by increases of only $50,000 per year. Upping the cap by so much at the start is much more expensive for the league (an extra $300,000 across nine teams is an extra $2.7 million overall, and that's just in the first year), but it offers a substantial PR boost, and a talking point when taking this case to the players and the public; it lets the CFL say, "Hey, we're proposing a nine per cent increase" rather than the 2.2 per cent increase the old leaked deal had in the first year. Perhaps even more importantly, a front-loaded deal like this could be very enticing to CFL players who don't plan to stick around the league for the long term.

Who is in this for the long term? Well, the starting quarterbacks probably are; there's been very little recent success in terms of CFL quarterbacks going to the NFL, and CFL starting QBs can make very good money. Backup quarterbacks are probably looking longer-term as well, dreaming of being CFL starters one day. Most of the Canadian players are likely thinking long-term, as non-import stars can have impressively long careers up here, and a solid group of American veterans is probably onside as well. Holding the PA line could be quite beneficial for all of those guys, especially if they're able to convince the league to go to a revenue-sharing model (which is at the the heart of this dispute). The CFL's in a good place financially, and it appears poised to make even further gains; anyone in this league for a while could reap major benefits under a revenue-sharing system. Imports hoping to shine in the CFL for just a couple of years before heading to the NFL may not care as much about future CFLPA gains, though.

That's not to say that this divide necessarily exists already, or that players here for even just a short time are going to prefer the CFL proposal to the one advanced by their union. The latest CFLPA proposal would lead to an even bigger cap jump this year, to $6.24 million, and as AT&T's commercials will tell you, "More is better." Even those not looking to stay in the league for a long time would probably prefer to make more money while they are here. It's notable that any gains aren't going to bring huge benefits to those here for one contract, though, as they're usually on minimum (or close-to-minimum) contracts. Both sides are talking about raising the minimum salary to $50,000 this year, which is a nice jump ($5,000 above what it was in 2013), but not a huge one, and considering that both sides are already going with $50,000, additional CBA discussions are unlikely to further improve the lot of those on minimum contracts. That doesn't mean those players are already in rebellion against the union, but it does mean that they're likely to gain less from the CFLPA proposals than those looking to stay in the CFL long-term.

There's another major consideration at play for players looking to make it to the NFL: game tape. For those looking to earn a spot south of the border, every CFL game is not just a contest in and of itself, but also a chance to show what they can do to NFL scouts. If pre-season and regular-season games start being missed, these players may start to get antsy, eager to get out there on the field and show off, and they may not see the point of continuing to hold out for future gains they don't think will benefit them. Oddly enough, for most of these players, future gains probably would be helpful; only a few CFLers are able to earn NFL tryouts each year, and even fewer wind up sticking south of the border, so plenty of those who nourished NFL dreams initially wind up as CFL veterans in the end. The CFL operates on an illusion of NFL hope for many, though, and given the current paucity of other high-level developmental options (although that may not last), this is the spot to be if you're out of college and trying to get to the NFL. Players in that situation may not be as committed to a strike as those who have already decided on the CFL for the long term.

This doesn't mean that we'll actually see the union fracture, of course. So far, the players have seemed quite united. It's worth noting that they voted in Flory (and his harder-line stance) just a few months ago, so it isn't like he and the other CFLPA executives don't have a mandate from the masses. Moreover, the CFL's decision to take their case to players and the public and go over the heads of the CFLPA committee has sparked a lot of resentment from many players. Flory said the players were "ambushed" and called the league's move "an orchestrated attack"; that may anger some players and galvanize support for the union's position. There aren't many signs of the players' solidarity cracking yet, but it's worth remembering that this is a union that represents players in vastly different circumstances. The CFLPA seems to be sticking together so far, but we'll see if newer players with NFL dreams are willing to hold the line in the long run for gains they don't believe will make a significant difference to them.

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