The CFL won’t be extending an olive branch to its players before the start of contract talks.
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie says he has no plans to overturn the league’s directive that teams not pay players bonuses this off-season until a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is reached. The current deal expires May 15, 2019.
Many CFL players receive up-front money, in the form of either a signing or roster bonus, as part of their contracts. They can still sign deals this off-season but won’t receive any negotiated bonuses until after a new CBA is ratified.
"It’s in place and I don’t anticipate it being removed," Ambrosie said. "I think its intention is honourable.
"It was designed to encourage the parties to come together and get a CBA done as fast and efficiently as we can."
Former commissioner Jeffrey Orridge issued the directive in early 2017. Ambrosie succeeded Orridge on July 5, 2017 and has kept the directive in place.
That’s drawn the ire of the CFL Players’ Association, which thinks the directive makes it nearly impossible to start positive discussions between the two sides.
"This is a provocative act by an employer that should be striving for good will and good faith going into bargaining," said Brian Ramsay, the CFLPA’s executive director. "It’s incendiary and it’s unfortunate but our plan is to bargain a fair and reasonable agreement and that’s our focus."
Added Ambrosie: "Look, I understand that. I think there’s a lot of positive about our relationship.
"I think the totality of what’s in front of the players and league is so positive that there won’t be any single point like that issue that will distract us from what is ultimately our goal, which is a big, strong CFL where everybody prospers."
Ambrosie spent nine seasons in the CFL as an offensive lineman and feels that gives him a unique perspective.
"I like to think my personal relationship with the players based on my passion for what they do is as high as anyone in a position like mine in the world of sports," he said. "I know in the long run the way for us all to win — fans, players, the league, teams — is to grow the game, make it bigger and stronger.
"I think it’s that spirit that will be working together this winter."
Traditionally, general managers have looked to re-sign players — heading into the final year of their contracts or free agency — to new deals that could include five- or six-figure signing bonuses. CFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed but players can keep bonus money even if released afterward.
There’s no financial benefit for teams as all cash paid to players counts against the salary cap. But if franchises have cap space at season’s end, some GMs use it to pay bonuses and help reduce their cap hit the following year.
The ability to offer bonuses also allows GMs to sweeten the pot for their top players, helping to prevent them from bolting to another team. Often in CFL free agency there’s very little difference between competing offers so up-front money becomes a powerful negotiating tool.
Not all GMs are fans of off-season bonuses, because in the past players have taken the money and then retired with no obligation to pay back the cash. That was the case last off-season when veteran quarterback Darian Durant retired after receiving a $70,000 signing bonus from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and didn’t give it back.
Some general managers prefer having players report to camp and pass a physical before receiving their bonus.
Some of the CFL’s biggest names are scheduled to become free agents this off-season, including quarterbacks Mike Reilly of Edmonton, Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell and Saskatchewan’s Zach Collaros. The bonus moratorium and an uncertain 2019 salary cap are two challenges GMs and player agents will face this off-season.
Contract talks between the CFL and CFLPA were tumultuous in 2014. Negotiations broke down several times and there was a threat of a players’ strike before both sides hammered out a five-year deal.