CFL opt-out rules come into focus as CBA negotiations continue

A CFL player opting out of a potential shortened season won't be paid, but could still hit free agency this winter if he's in the final year of his contract.

According to a league source, CFL players with safety concerns could decide against playing in 2020, without penalty. The league and CFL Players' Association continue to discuss amendments to the current collective bargaining agreement that could help facilitate a shortened season.

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The source was granted anonymity because neither the CFL nor the CFLPA has confirmed the opt-out clause being available.

Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has stated an abbreviated season won't begin until September at the earliest, and the league recently said all games would be played in Winnipeg. But Ambrosie also has said a cancelled campaign remains possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NFL's amended CBA includes an opt-out clause for players. While those deciding not to play won't get their entire 2020 salary, they're eligible to receive a US$150,000 stipend.

On Saturday, Canadian Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a starting guard with the Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs, became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season. Duvernay-Tardif, who graduated from McGill University's medical school in 2018, spent time this off-season in Montreal working as an orderly at a long-term care facility.

A CFL player opting out won't be paid, but the term of his contract would continue. So if the player was in the final year of his deal, he'd still be eligible to become a free agent in February.

CFL players — American and Canadian — certainly have plenty to consider if there's a shortened season. The expectation is teams would play six regular-season games so players would have to weigh the risk of injury against doing so for as little as a third of their regular salary.

And whatever money a player paid into his pension this year wouldn't be matched by the CFL, under an amended proposal. Traditionally, the league has equalled those contributions.

The league and CFLPA still are negotiating terms on a CBA.

For players working another job, there's giving up consistent employment and being at home in favour of moving away for life in a hub and a drastically reduced football salary.

Americans have much more to consider because CFL contracts are paid in Canadian currency. So, for example, $30,000 paid for the six games translates to roughly US$22,100 before taxes and deductions.

And that's for a pro-rated $90,000 salary. The CFL's minimum stipend is $65,000.

But an amended CBA isn't the biggest hurdle to an abbreviated season. There's adhering to provincial/federal health-and-safety measures and securing much-needed funding from Ottawa.

Earlier this month, the CFL submitted a revised financial request to Ottawa for roughly $42.5 million in aid.

Ottawa is dealing with the league's offer — regarded by many as essential for a shortened season — via the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). While it's a federal agency, the BDC is also a crown corporation and can't be mandated to financially assist the CFL by the federal government.

The BDC is essentially a bank with lending criteria and the CFL — which Ambrosie has said lost upwards of $20 million collectively last year — is unlikely to qualify given its current financial state. To secure assistance, essentially a loan, the league would likely require the Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. governments to provide some kind of guarantee on any aid, something a source has said Ottawa is trying to help facilitate.

Meanwhile, Canada's chief public health officer said Ottawa is talks with the CFL about applying quarantine rules to returning American players that are similar to the cohort approach used by the NHL.

Dr. Theresa Tam said protocols the NHL has in place, which includes the concept of teams entering quarantine together, are being discussed with the CFL. But she couldn't say how far talks have progressed.

The federal government approved a cohort quarantine approach for NHL teams entering Canada to resume the season in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic. The teams are isolated from the general public in "bubbles," and players can quarantine together instead of being subjected to the individual 14-day quarantine required of those crossing the international border.

"The same principles would apply in the discussions concerning the CFL and ensuring that the health and safety of Canadians are at the forefront and that any protocols put in place are there to mitigate any kind of transmission to the general population," Tam said during a COVID-19 press conference.

"I do think that the kind of protocols that the NHL has in place, which includes the concept of quarantining the teams or cohorts is something that is being addressed in that context, so yes I do believe that kind of concept is sort of in discussion."

Under the Manitoba government plan for a shortened season in Winnipeg, league players and coaches would be in a bubble consisting of hotels, practice fields and a stadium.

Players would have to isolate at home for 14 days prior to departing for Winnipeg. They'd be tested for the novel coronavirus upon their arrival then go into quarantine for another seven days before training camps could open.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2020.

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