TORONTO — The COVID-19 pandemic is creating plenty of financial uncertainty for CFL players.
It has forced the CFL to not only postpone the start of training camps — which were to open this month — but also push back the start of the regular season from June 11 to early July, at the earliest. However, last week commissioner Randy Ambrosie told a House of Commons standing committee on finance the most likely scenario is a cancelled 2020 season, although no formal announcement has been made.
CFL players haven’t received a game cheque since November. Many have off-season jobs — to not only supplement their income but also establish business connections for life after football. However, CFL Players’ Association executive director Brian Ramsay said a number of players have either been laid off or lost their positions outright because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Ramsay couldn’t say exactly how many players have been affected, but added the union membership is facing many of the same realities Canadians are these days.
“This is a scenario many Canadians are going through,” Ramsay said, adding the players who’ve had their off-season work impacted are Canadians and Americans (who are permanent residents in Canada) employed in Canada.
Just over half of CFL players are American.
Players losing their off-season jobs in Canada due to the pandemic can apply for either unemployment insurance or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). However, both provide only temporary relief and usually the funds they provide are less than what was being earned beforehand.
CFL players working during their off-seasons is nothing new. Ramsay, 40, worked for KPMG — a Canadian tax, audit and advisory service — for nine years during his football career as an offensive lineman with Toronto, Hamilton and Edmonton (2006-2015).
Ramsay would train for football in the morning and evening, but spend the days of his off-season working as an accountant. When the CFL campaign began, he’d take a six-month leave of absence before returning at season’s end.
Towards the end of his career, Ramsay said he even worked with KPMG during the CFL season.
“My pay scale never climbed but my seniority did,” Ramsay said. “The money wasn’t important to me because I knew I was making income playing.
“What was important was gaining the nine years of experience and climbing up in seniority in the firm so my responsibility when I came back for those six months was reflective as if I’d been there for nine years up to the end.”
Given the average pro football career is roughly three seasons, Ramsay said the CFLPA wants its players to gain off-field work experience.
“More and more of our guys are working or gaining experience to be able to prepare for life after football,” Ramsay said. “We’re encouraging that.”
And with good reason. While many CFL quarterbacks earn over $400,000 annually, the minimum salary is $65,000 and average stipend is about $85,000. Pro football contracts also are not guaranteed.
All CFL players are paid in Canadian currency.
Not only are players unsure if there’s going to be a 2020 season, even if there is one it will undoubtedly be condensed, meaning fewer paycheques than expected.
“The effects of missing paycheques on a budgeted annual income are huge,” Ramsay said. “A lot of our guys haven’t earned a paycheque since the first week of November last year and have been budgeting accordingly to where they’d be receiving paycheques in June.
“Now, you don’t know if the income is going to be there with football, what that looks like and what you’ve been relying on.”
Ramsay said it’s wrong for people to believe football players only work half the year. Those who don’t have paying off-season jobs must still work out to prepare for the upcoming football season.
“If you don’t show up at training camp in shape and ready to go, then you’re out of a job,” Ramsay said. “I think a pertinent point to that is the time invested from that last paycheque and the training they’ve done leading up to the season right now is really working for a paycheque that’s supposed to be coming in June.
“You can’t fault them for doing that, that’s their job. But there’s not many jobs that I know of where you’re going to work for five months on your own without receiving a paycheque and (when you do work) your salary is condensed over 18 weeks.”
Or in the case of 2020, over less than 18 weeks — or not at all.
And that’s why Ramsay feels it’s crucial for the CFL Players’ Association to be involved with the CFL in charting the league’s future. Two weeks ago, Ambrosie divulged the league was asking the federal government for up to $150 million in financial aid due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But last week, Ambrosie was criticized by three MPs for not having players involved in his presentation. The two sides resumed meeting last week to discuss contingency plans for the 2020 season, their first gathering since April 16 when they reached an impasse regarding interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement.
Any changes to the CBA require agreement from both sides. More meetings between the CFL and CFLPA are scheduled for this week.
“I think it’s important that there’s an understanding our players are like many other workers and the plight they’re going through,” Ramsay said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press