CFL is its own worst enemy Labour strife couldn’t come at worse time for struggling league

It’s always something with the Canadian Football League, isn’t it?

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It’s always something with the Canadian Football League, isn’t it?

Shady business deals. Bankruptcy scares. Ill-fated expansion. Franchises in peril. Murky mergers. PR fumbles. A global pandemic. I’m sure swarms of locusts are probably next on the calamity bingo card.

But just when it appears the three-down loop had nicely recovered from its latest brush with disaster comes a major self-inflicted wound, one that threatens to have the patient bleed out in front of our very eyes if a quick fix can’t be found.

A strike? Now? Are these guys for real? Memo to everyone involved: Read the room. And wake the hell up.

Let’s start with the commissioner, Randy Ambrosie, who stood in front of the masses last November prior to Winnipeg and Hamilton doing battle in the Grey Cup and essentially hung the “Mission Accomplished” banner after the returning from a crippling year-long COVID-19 hiatus that led to combined league-wide losses in the $60- to $80- million dollar range.

TODD KOROL / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie spoke of a brand-new business model designed to bring nothing but sunshine and rainbows and maybe a unicorn or two across the land last November.

Not only had they completed a full campaign, but Ambrosie spoke of a brand-new business model designed to bring nothing but sunshine and rainbows and maybe a unicorn or two across the land.

“If you look through the lens of what had to happen, Winston Churchill famously once said ‘Never waste a crisis’ and I’m happy to say we didn’t,” Ambrosie boasted, with no hint of his pants catching fire. “For the first time in almost 40 years we now have a revenue sharing model that’s going to help teams get back on their feet.”

Just six months later, players are on their feet alright — walking the picket lines. Monday marked the second straight day of owners and athletes giving each other the silent treatment, with the clock ticking loudly towards the scheduled start of pre-season games next week.

It’s a dangerous game of chicken they’re playing, one that threatens to leave them all as roadkill. Rather than build off the momentum and goodwill that came with returning to the gridiron in 2021, the CFL is once again staring down the Grim Reaper. This time by extending a personal invitation.

It’s all so unnecessary. It’s all so stupid.

Rather than build off the momentum and goodwill that came with returning to the gridiron in 2021, the CFL is once again staring down the Grim Reaper.

Ambrosie, of course, is merely a mouthpiece for the nine franchise owners, who along with the CFLPA opted to wait until the 11th hour to roll up the sleeves and begin working on a new collective bargaining agreement. You’d think they might have broken bread shortly after the Blue Bombers captured a second straight championship, to ensure not a single beat would get skipped when it comes to an all-important 2022 season. You would be wrong.

Instead, they only started getting serious late last week. And by serious I mean snarled at each other publicly — and no doubt privately — before parting ways on Saturday, on the eve of training camps opening across the league and just as the current CBA expired. Terrific.

Consider this: The initial offer from the owners was for a ridiculous 10-year deal that included no salary-cap increases and eliminating the Canadian player ratio. Talk about setting the tone for what was to come. Sure, it’s been watered down a bit since, but the players have accused them of forcing “an unnecessary work stoppage by acting in such an authoritarian manner.”

Based on the latest proposal that Ambrosie shared publicly — a move some players have described as “shady” and meant to try and curry public favour — owners want some long-term stability in the form of a seven-year deal with modest pay hikes below the expected rate of inflation. Not surprisingly, the union says that’s still far too long given the almost day-to-day nature of this league.

ANDREW VAUGHAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie, of course, is merely a mouthpiece for the nine franchise owners, who along with the CFLPA opted to wait until the 11th hour to roll up the sleeves and begin working on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Owners want more padded practices, while players balk at such a move by pointing to a reduction in injuries and the importance of that given the short average lifespan of a career. Players want more transparency on revenues, including a third-party audit, before agreeing to any type of system designed to share in any potential wealth. Owners, it would appear, want them to mind their own damn business and stay out of their books, which naturally creates plenty of suspicion. The Canadian content on every club, part of which makes the northern loop unique and special, is also the source of much debate.

Ambrosie and the owners talk a good game about wanting to work together to build a bright future. But actions speak louder than words, and this sure sounds a lot like “our way or the highway.”

(Randy) Ambrosie and the owners talk a good game about wanting to work together to build a bright future. But actions speak louder than words, and this sure sounds a lot like “our way or the highway.”

Even if you sympathize with the plight of the players, as I do, the problem is they have no other real option. Many are making at or near the current minimum salary of $65,000, and it’s not like there are other football-related job offers pouring in. No doubt the owners are using that as leverage, believing it’s only a matter of time before their spirit is broken and they come grovelling back to the table.

Still, I can’t imagine the suits in all nine markets are all for one, one for all. Some, like right here in Winnipeg and our friends to the west in Regina, stand to a lose a whole lot more than others if games start getting wiped out.

There’s no question both sides here feel they’ve made concessions. That’s how bargaining typically works. But to now go 48 hours (and counting) without any meaningful talks is unconscionable. Are these guys trying to become completely irrelevant? They’re sure acting like it. Where’s the urgency?

The first strike since 1974, and just the second in history, truly couldn’t come at a worse time for the league, which was already facing an uphill battle in the coming weeks to grab headlines in many markets.

The first strike since 1974, and just the second in history, truly couldn’t come at a worse time for the league, which was already facing an uphill battle in the coming weeks to grab headlines in many markets.

Calgary and Edmonton are about to be consumed by the NHL’s first playoff Battle of Alberta since 1991, with one of those teams moving on to the Western Conference Final. Vancouver and Toronto, as a whole, don’t really care about the CFL at the best of times. They might actually lose less money by going dark.

As the fallout from COVID-19 has shown, many sports fans have found other ways to spend their time, and their limited financial resources. Now the CFL is deliberately giving people a reason to completely tune them out and stop caring, just one year removed from dusting itself off and getting back on the field.

It’s always something with this league. But they only have themselves to blame for this latest fiasco.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Footballs from the Canadian Football League at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers stadium in Winnipeg.
Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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