Stephen Brunt on the CFL: Time to stop playing defence

The CFL doesn’t want to be a development league for the NFL—but that wouldn’t be a bad thing

Pretty much forever it has been the central dichotomy of Canadian football, the struggle between its two great and apparently contradictory truths.

This is our game, just as the branding suggests (or, as it used to be expressed back in a slightly more desperate and crude time, “Our Balls Are Bigger”). This is a unique and uniquely Canadian sport that evolved out of rugby at just about the same time that football did in the United States, following its own idiosyncratic path.

The CFL is no branch plant, no farm system, no triple-A. Rather, it is the best three-down football league in the world. Its championship, the Grey Cup, was in existence long before there was an established professional loop south of the border, let alone a Super Bowl.

For most Canadian football loyalists, to support the CFL is as much a statement of identity and principle as it is exercising an entertainment option. The rules are better, they argue, it’s more wide open and higher-scoring (even if that’s not entirely true these days), and those who believe otherwise have simply been swayed by empty hype.

Yankee go home, and take that extra down with you.

Except that… well… we kind of need them—or at least their football players. Any list of the greatest stars in CFL history will be dominated by Americans, including Ron Lancaster and George Reed and Garney Henley and even Anthony Calvillo, who all stuck around so long and became so much a part of the fabric that it sure felt like they came from here.

Some of that talent arrived in the form of extraordinary athletes whose skills and physiques were better suited to the Canadian game. But the bulk of it, honestly, was either not quite good enough for the NFL, or was simply passing through.

Since the point in the early 1960s when NFL salaries surpassed CFL salaries, the economic equation became pretty simple. Outside of the odd exception created by a spendthrift owner during particularly flush times—think Raghib Ismail—players could make far more money, even as the last bodies on an NFL roster, even on a taxi squad, than they could playing in Canada.

The typical American player arrives in a CFL camp because he has failed to be noticed by or stick with an NFL team. The vast majority of them understandably harbour NFL dreams and will head back the minute they can.

That’s not a bad thing for the CFL. Better to have players like Cameron Wake (who, with B.C., led the CFL in sacks in 2008 before signing with Miami) for a few seasons than not at all. And better to have others who aren’t that good, but think they are, believe that coming north and playing for a relative pittance is an alternative to getting on with their non-football lives.

Except that a few years ago, the CFL made that more difficult by closing a window of opportunity through which players entering their option year could walk away from their contracts and try to catch on with an NFL team. (Every CFL player signs at minimum what is effectively a two-year contract—the final year a team option.)

Which brings us to the case of Chris Williams, a wide receiver and kick returner who had cups of coffee in Miami and Cleveland—and with Hartford of the now-defunct United Football League—before arriving in Hamilton in 2010 and becoming a CFL star. He was named the league’s most outstanding rookie in 2011, and its top special teams player in 2012.

When the Tiger-Cats report for training camp in early June, Williams will not be among them. That’s because the option year of his contract (he originally signed a two-years-plus-an-option deal) would pay him less than $60,000, while the NFL deal he believes is waiting for him would pay a minimum of $405,000—and he’d get $90,000 just for sticking on a practice roster.

On one hand, there are the issues of short careers, injury risk, and perhaps (as Williams is currently attempting to argue in arbitration) of the team and his agent not informing him he had the option of committing to only two, rather than three years. Even if he fails to prove his case, under CFL rules, Williams can simply sit out the season and become a free agent in 2014.

On the other hand, there are the questions of loyalty to the organization that gave him a chance to play, to his teammates and the Hamilton fans, of honouring a contract, of doing what’s right. That’s why the Ti-Cats and the CFL will fight tooth and nail to hold on to him.

But the truth is, they’d be better off letting him go, however painful that might be, and reopening the option window, encouraging the free flow of football players back and forth across the great unguarded border.

The CFL might be able to live without him, but it can’t thrive without the next Chris Williams, and the next one after that. Whatever the patriotic rhetoric, whatever the size of our balls, our game is made better by Americans, even when they’re just visiting.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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