Ontario judge overrules arbitrator, CFLPA takes stand that Chris Williams is a free agent

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The Chris Williams situation just had its weirdest twist yet. The former Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver has been sitting out over a contract dispute regarding if the team offered him the required two-year minimum contract and if they violated the CBA by dealing with an agent not registered with the CFLPA, and while an arbitrator ruled in June that the Ticats' errors there weren't enough to invalidate his deal, Williams declined to return to the team, and the CFLPA elected to appeal on his behalf to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. Well, that move appears to have paid off. As per a release from the CFL Players Association Thursday, Ontario judge Gladys I. Pardu has quashed the arbitrator's decision. That has the CFLPA taking the position that Williams is now a free agent, free to sign with NFL or CFL teams, and it could lead to him playing somewhere this season.

What's particularly interesting is that Pardu's decision doesn't appear to be about the Tiger-Cats negotiating with a non-registered agent or about offering him the minimum contract, flaws that would have happened during Williams' initial contract negotiations with them in 2011, but rather about the way they attempted to exercise his option this year. That would put the fault on new head coach and general manager Kent Austin rather than former GM Bob O'Billovich. From the decision attached in the release:

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Where does Williams go from here? Well, the CFLPA's position is that he's free to sign with any NFL or CFL team, and it's hard to see the CFL contesting that successfully. Where he'll wind up is a good question, though. It's late enough in the NFL preseason that teams are looking to make cuts, not add new players, and when they do add new players, it's generally those who have been cut by other squads, not those who have been sitting on the sidelines thanks to a court battle. Williams' CFL play as a receiver and a returner in 2011 and 2012 was impressive enough to get him NFL looks, but we'll see if any NFL teams are still interested at this point. If not, he could potentially wind up with another CFL team, but that seems unlikely, as he'd have to commit for both this year and next year thanks to the two-year minimum brought in by the elimination of players' NFL option years. Thus, there's still a chance that Williams will remain on the football sidelines this year despite this decision and that he'll then try and catch on in the NFL next spring.

This decision could be rather important for the CFL as a whole, though, especially considering the grounds it was given on. It should push CFL teams to be much more careful in how they exercise player options, and it should also push them to be careful to follow the CBA when negotiating contracts. Both of those findings would seem to be wins for the CFLPA: that increases the incentive for teams to negotiate only with CFLPA-approved agents (they're supposed to, but they don't always), and it should push them to be more upfront with players about what exactly they have to sign. The move by Williams and the CFLPA to appeal a binding arbitration decision seemed like a bit of a Hail Mary at first, but it looks like it's paid off. Regardless of if that lets Williams try the NFL this year or not, it may well change things for CFL teams going forward.

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