TORONTO — The CFL Players’ Association is investigating whether players had firm agreements from member clubs to release them from their CFL contracts so they could pursue opportunities south of the border.
Last month, both running back James Wilder Jr. and defensive lineman Victor Butler expressed frustration when the Toronto Argonauts refused to let them out of the CFL deals so they could pursue NFL opportunities. Both players signed two-year deals with the Double Blue prior to the 2017 season.
Butler said he signed a one-year deal, plus a team option, with Toronto last February. But he added it was with the understanding following the ’17 season he’d be allowed to pursue NFL opportunities.
If unsuccessful, then Butler, a seven-year NFL veteran, would return to the Grey Cup-champion Argos.
"We are investigating the circumstances as well as the discussions referenced by the players as they relate to their contracts or any other agreements that may have been in place," Brian Ramsay, the CFLPA executive director, said in a statement. "Once we are satisfied with the results of the investigation, we will meet with the commissioner and league office to discuss next steps."
Essentially, the union feels if a team has agreed to release a player from his CFL contract so he could try out south of the border, the terms of that deal should be honoured.
On Jan. 31, linebackers Jeff Knox Jr. and Micah Awe were released by the Saskatchewan Roughriders and B.C. Lions, respectively, to pursue NFL opportunities. Knox Jr. had an expiring contract — he was scheduled to become a free agent Tuesday — but Awe, who signed with the New York Jets, still had a year remaining on his CFL contract.
Last week, commissioner Randy Ambrosie reiterated the CFL’s stance that players are "required to honour their contracts as they are registered with the league."
"Teams are not allowed to make side deals with players entering the league," Ambrosie said in a statement. "Recently, one of our teams announced they had released a player halfway through his first CFL contract so he can pursue NFL opportunities.
"The CFL has discerned this action was a product of such a side agreement and the team faces a heavy fine for not following our rules and procedures. We have the utmost respect for our players, their careers and their ambitions. Like any league, we also expect them to respect their contractual obligations as our teams will respect theirs."
But the players point to differing rules existing for CFL coaches. Earlier this week, there was a report defensive co-ordinator Corey Chamblin wasn’t planning to return to the Argos this season despite having another year left on his contract. And in January 2017, Scott Milanovich resigned as Toronto head coach to become the quarterbacks coach with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
"Unlike our players, CFL coaches and management have the benefit of both guaranteed contracts while also being able to seek other opportunities in either the NFL or college, despite having active contracts with the CFL," Ramsay said. "The CFLPA, as well as our membership, are distressed with this continuing double standard as it relates to how the rules and agreements within our league are applied.
"We have brought these concerns to the CFL and will ensure that a fair and positive action can be taken to the satisfaction of our membership. The CFLPA does not expect to provide any public updates related to these investigations until the results are understood, communicated to all parties and we have agreed upon a fair resolution."