Published on November 21, 2008 9:22 PM by dbo.
The CFL is on an upswing. From an outsider’s perspective, as many as six or seven of eight franchises could break even or make a profit this year. The league is in the first year of a lucrative five-year television contract. Montreal is about to host another in a string of successful Grey Cups, the last two being hosted in Canada’s two largest Eastern cities. So many believe there is money on the table. Besides getting all franchises profitable there are many suggestions on what the CFL should do with some of its new found wealth. Increase spending on player salaries, officiating and perhaps even a crumbling stadium infrastructure in the smaller centers across the country. Today’s State of the League address by commissioner Mark Cohon announced progress on one other initiative — a drug testing policy — but nothing has been mentioned about another much needed program for the league.
The CFL has been struggling with the need to keep up with professional sports and implement a drug testing policy and financial survival. While they have made the proper indications about wanting to establish a drug policy and testing with the cooperation of the player’s association, the league has failed to create such a policy over the last 15 years and through a number of individuals in the Commissioner’s office. With the league on much more solid ground the calls from the media have increased over the CFL being the only professional sports league without any drug policy whatsoever, whether illegal recreational drugs to performance enhancing drugs.
The financial burden of testing and operating a program has been the one factor holding back the CFL from establishing an agreement with the CFLPA. In the question and answer period of the 2008 State of the League address, commissioner Cohon stated that the league is strong and stable enough to focus on negotiating a policy for the next collective bargaining agreement. League COO Michael Copeland has already worked out a first draft of a drug testing policy with the CFLPA and Stu Laird, CFLPA President, has stated the player’s association is not opposed to a drug policy or testing. This bodes well for a policy to be included in the next CBA, due by the expiry of the current agreement in May, 2010. Formal negotiations on the next CBA will begin in 2009, however no details on the draft drug policy were revealed. The media has described it as “ground-breaking“, which may set the expectations too high, at least in the media. If the CFL shows its good intentions by starting with a simple program, phasing it in and increasing the scope and expenditures of the program each year, will it be criticized for not matching the scope of other professional sport league policies?
I believe a phased in program, where players are entitled to receive addiction and drug counseling, suspensions for performance enhancing drugs, and small numbers of random drug tests is the most affordable option for the league. Introducing treatment and counseling programs before adopting testing may be of interest to the CFLPA. If the number of drugs tested for is a financial factor, performance enhancing drugs should be the focus of tests. Once testing is established, the quantity of tests can increase every one or two years as finances allow. Such a program is affordable, puts in the key components to get players help if needed, deters steroid and other performance enhancing drug use and performs testing. It also provides a nice base to grow a program from while showing a seriousness about the issue now that the league’s financial situation has improved.
With an initiative to help and protect existing players and protect the integrity of the league, the league office needs to look next at supporting retired players who gave much to the league in their playing days.
The CFL does not have an obligation as part of the collective bargaining agreement with the CFLPA to provide any medical coverage past the next training camp when a player is unable to perform due to injury. Players injured during the season will have their remaining salary paid, but can be released upon the next season if they are unable to play; their contracts are not guaranteed. If a player suffers complications due to a career ending injury later in life, they are on their own. A disability plan funded by the league that players could apply to for medical assistance is something the league and players association are looking at.
While players do receive a meager pension, a disability fund would be meant to provide financial assistance to players who suffered injuries while playing that creates additional medical expense after retirement. Even of greater visibility is the thought that help could be given to players who may have suffered head injuries which then manifested itself as depression and alcohol abuse in their retirement years. These stories, like those of NFL veterans who have been successfully petitioning their league for increased funds to treat all kinds of player conditions, tug at the heartstrings and everyone wants these players to be helped in any way possible.
Does the CFL have enough money to do so? I don’t have detailed knowledge of the league’s finances, so I cannot say. Even if disbursements to the individual clubs are not sufficient for all to make a profit, the CFL cannot wait until it is flush with cash to create such a plan for its retired players, lest it never be launched. As an act of good faith for its retired players on which its current successes are built on, a small program should be started as soon as possible. There are many different ways it could be initiated, with an initial lump sum with smaller annual contributions to paying a set number of player expenses each year as decided by a CFLPA committee. By doing the right thing by starting such a program, as small as it may be, the league defines their concern over the well being of their players, even after they are retired.
I hope at next year’s Grey Cup commissioner Cohon announces both a formal drug policy and player disability fund with a new collective bargaining agreement with the CFLPA. These two simple programs can increase the positive direction the league is on currently. Doing the right thing for former and current players only helps the league internally and externally. If the CFL can find the money to create a disability plan and drug testing plan in the next couple years, they will be open to less criticism for the lack of these programs. Some will criticize the league for not implementing fully-funded programs, but there will always be those who will criticize the league. Others will see the CFL attempting to do the right thing and correct some long-term deficiencies now that they have reached a small level of financial stability and success.