TORONTO — In Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver Brian Jones’ mind, the CFL and CFL Players’ Association are at a crossroads.
The two sides were scheduled to meet Friday to continue talks on potential contingency plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was first gathering after CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s admission Thursday night the most likely scenario for the league is a cancelled 2020 season.
Ambrosie made the revelation before a House of Commons standing committee on finance. He added the CFL lost collectively about $20 million last year and its future is “very much in jeopardy.”
Last week, Ambrosie said the league was seeking up to $150 million in assistance from the federal government due to the pandemic. Ambrosie’s revelation regarding the league’s precarious state certainly created a heightened sense of urgency heading into Friday’s talks.
“It was kind of a shock to many people when the government aid story came out,” said Jones. “I think communication is the biggest thing we need right now as a league with the membership because it’s a partnership.
“Just having the information and just being tight-knit, I think that will just make everyone feel at ease as we move forward. It’s not an easy job right now for Mr. Ambrosie to try and navigate through all this and to have us in close contact is definitely going to help make many people feel at ease going through this.”
Thursday’s hearing made it very clear CFL players must assume a bigger role in determining the league’s future. MPs Kevin Waugh (Conservative, Saskatoon-Grasswood) and Peter Julian (NDP, New Westminster-Burnaby) both questioned why there was no player involvement in the CFL proposal from Ambrosie.
Throughout the process, both the CFL and CFLPA have repeatedly stated all potential contingency plans were on the table. But Ambrosie’s comments suggest now only two scenarios remain — a partial 2020 campaign, or none at all.
Jones, 26, is entering his fifth CFL season and second with Hamilton. He admits the league’s uncertain future is troubling.
“The reality is there’s a lot of people who rely on this league,” said Jones, a native of Enfield, N.S. “Many people know this league is, in fact, a blue-collar league and people feed their families based upon this.
“We need to be supportive and all working together, I think that’s the best thing we can do right now. There’s a lot of people, including myself, who are definitely looking at the situation and monitoring it as close as we can and making decisions based upon what’s the reality right now.”
Like Jones, veteran linebacker Henoc Muamba, a Montreal Alouettes player rep, feels these are scary times for CFL players.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I feel like me, personally, I’m in a good place in my life where I’ve played long enough and been able to establish certain things off the field where I have an idea of where I can take it.
“But at the end of the day it’s the reality for many players, many people, that this is their livelihood, this is how they feed their families. It’s definitely a time where the players and league need to work together to find the best solution moving forward.”
Muamba said it’s very important the two sides work together.
“Unity is a bigger thing moving forward,” he said. “On the side of the PA, that’s all we’ve been talking about so hopefully things will continue moving forward in that direction.”
Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive lineman Jordan Reaves echoed those sentiments.
“I really do believe now is the time to come together,” said the 30-year-old Winnipeg native. “Let’s put all our differences aside and do what’s best for the players, the league and the country.
“If we really do band together as one like we’re supposed to — we’re supposed to be unified, right — I think we can come to some sort of agreement to maybe play football because it’s not only the players, coaches and team offices being hurt. We have thousands of fans who live for football and to watch those Riders or Stampeders games so I hope maybe we can come to some sort of agreement.”
Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Friday the federal government isn’t close to determining whether it will give the CFL any sort of financial assistance.
“We’re starting to look at more sector specific measures,” he said. “Clearly we will look at professional sports in Canada.
“It is something we’re looking at, no decision has been made at this point. If we were to do this, it probably would not take the form of a grant or a subsidy. It would take a different form, but it’s really early on.”
Ambrosie said Thursday the CFL has approached the provinces for help.
“What we’re saying to the provinces … is we’re looking to be creative, we’re willing to be creative to find solutions,” he said. “Obviously, we want to protect jobs, which is a priority for us.
“We want to help our players, we want to look after the future of our game.”
Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Minister, has convened several advisory panels looking at ideas for how to help various sectors in her portfolio. Ambrosie sits on one dealing with pro sports.
— With files from CP reporters Donna Spencer in Calgary and Allison Jones in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press