Open the window? A CFL debate rages

Open the window? A CFL debate rages

It can be the strangest events that lead to a change of opinion. A personal ‘lightbulb moment’ for me happened recently when a vacuum cleaner fell on me. It hurt, I mean really hurt and that brief moment of physical pain led me to re think my stance on recent events regarding CFL players, their contracts and the ‘NFL window’.

I’ll explain my change of heart later, but first let’s look at how we got here in the first place. James Wilder Jr has seemingly started something. In going from tweeting , “I will be the first  CFL player to get 1k-1k I talk my goals into existence, I absolutely love the pressure, No more just big goals, BEST goals only this year of 2018 for me!!!!!!” on the 8th of January to announcing he would sit out the entire 2018 CFL season in a statement on the 24th January. In doing  so Wilder Jr has become the poster boy for a major area of contention in the league.

So what sparked this abrupt change and why has it created a much wider debate in CFL circles? Well from Wilder’s point of view getting into the NFL makes sound financial sense. Moving from the CFL with minimum contracts of $56,000 per season to the NFL with minimum contracts of $465,000 could only be seen as a success – if he made it. However he has a year left on his contract and the Argos aren’t letting him go. Simple right? Well no, not really.

Now a  league wide debate has started. It’s all to do with the ‘NFL window’ or lack thereof. Between 1997 and 2010 the CFL had an ‘NFL window’ in player contracts. In 1997, the CFL was in trouble and took a $3 million  interest-free loan from the NFL to keep going. Alongside agreement to repay the loan, the CFL also allowed its players to sign NFL contracts while there was still a year remaining on their CFL deals. Those deals therefore contained the “NFL window”, a six-week period from the beginning of January until mid-February where players entering the final year of their contract were allowed to pursue opportunities in the NFL.

In fairness, there were never more than a handful of ex-CFL players who made it to NFL rosters and it could be argued that the window was actually good for the league because it made it easier to attract new players. So even after repaying the NFL loan, the league kept the window.

Within the league there was much debate as to whether the CFL benefited more from enticing players to join the league with the promise of the window than it was hurt by releasing good players from their deals a year early. Some even suggested that for every good player the league lost early because of the window, it could attract several more who wouldn’t otherwise have come.

However, when the league’s new collective agreement with its players was finalised in the spring of 2010, the window was removed, a decision that stunned certain of the league’s general managers, who argued  that the widow  was a fair way for players to test whether they could be earning NFL paydays while CFL teams retained their rights and additionally was an important recruiting tool for new players.

The window was gone. That was the official position at least. However, whilst the window may not have been on the contracts of a lot of players, some CFL teams have effectively put the window back in via side deals, on an individual basis. Unfortunately, as these agreements are on an individual basis and not league consistent some players were allowed to leave their contracts early for the NFL while others were not. This is a situation that can surely only cause resentment.

Recently for example, the B.C. Lions released a player who was under contract for another CFL season to pursue the NFL just days after the Toronto Argonauts refused to do the same for two of their players – Wilder Jr and Victor Butler.

In fact the Wilder and Butler scenarios demonstrate well how the window could benefit the CFL at times. Wilder, at 25 is coming off a rookie of the year season, and perhaps an NFL team might want to sign him, young and productive is a good combination after all. In Butler’s case, the NFL seems more of a long-shot, he is 30 – an age where few players make the leap between the leagues.

Returning the NFL window may enable players like Butler to discover they aren’t going to make it and return under contract to their original CFL team. As it stands now, with players having to complete their CFL deals before trying the NFL, if a player is cut from an NFL team he becomes a free agent on both sides of the border. Thus the Argos would lose Butler or Wilder Jr to the free market completely.

At the same time, teams may find the window makes it easier to recruit players to the CFL with the promise that they’d be allowed to exit their deals after a season if an NFL team came calling, while still retaining their CFL rights.

Of course there is the other side to the argument. It’s a simple argument too. A contract has been signed. It should be honoured by the player. This argument suggests the CFL has given the player a chance to shine they may never have got elsewhere and therefore, if that does alert NFL teams to potential talent, then that ‘talent’  owes the CFL something for getting to that position.

There are plenty of CFL GM’s against re-opening the window too. They see it as a way of creating too much potential roster turnover and additionally that it isn’t their job to effectively talent spot for the NFL.

I briefly agreed with these latter views, until I thought about it more deeply and, as mentioned above a vacuum cleaner fell on me. It was a very brief moment of pain for me whilst cleaning the stairs to have the cleaner lunge forwards and hit me in the shoulder. Perhaps I was already subconsciously debating the NFL window because it popped into my head almost as soon as the vacuum hit me!

The thing that made me think is this. We love to watch the CFL and it’s stars performing all action heroics play after play. To do that though they are putting their body on the line. A running back like Wilder Jr will get hit a lot harder by a linebacker, lineman, safety or whoever than I did by a vacuum cleaner. Then, instead of rubbing his shoulder and moaning like I did, he’ll go back and do it again, and again and again…and so on.

Why? For our entertainment. Football, like all sports exists for no other reason than for us to enjoy and get wrapped up in. For the players it’s a profession, a living. Why wouldn’t they want to go where they can get the best deal? And, if they are willing to put their bodies on the line time and time again – for our entertainment – shouldn’t we be happy for them to pursue an opportunity to make more money?

Cards on the table – I am an Argos fan. I loved seeing Wilder Jr in the double blue last season and would love to have him back, but he and players like him surely deserve the chance to explore all their options. The window would allow him to test the NFL waters, and if he didn’t catch on, allow the Argos to still have him on their books for the next season.

I know you can argue with players in situations like this that they’ve signed a contract, and perhaps nobody else was giving them a chance, but I’m pretty sure these same teams would happily jettison the same player if they didn’t deem them good enough or needed to hit cap targets.  ‘Football is a business’ you will often hear personnel people say. That cuts both ways though. It’s a business for players looking to make the best living they can too.

For now, there will be no change. Contracts will stay as they stand and the league expects them to be honoured. We know this because at the start of February CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie moved to clarify the league’s position, stating that teams aren’t supposed to be making side deals that allow players to leave their contracts early for the NFL.

“This is one of those topics worthy of some real healthy discussion,” said Ambrosie. “And I understand the pros and cons but I think we all agree we should follow the same set of rules.”

The league may have settled this in the short-term but the debate isn’t going away. It will certainly be a hot topic going into next spring, when some are already anticipating the NFL window may be brought back as part of the next CBA. You can be certain that it will be an issue the players want to raise.




Chris Lawton

Chris Lawton joined the team in 2017 and has been writing about the CFL ever since. He originally started following the NFL with the 'first wave' of fans when it was shown on Channel 4 in the 1980's. He has been a keen supporter of the Miami Dolphins since 1983. Chris first encountered the CFL in 2016 and instantly fell in love with the Canadian game. He has been writing about the CFL from the inception of Ninety-Nine Yards. You can find him on twitter as @CFLfanUK

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