Following the Canadian Football League’s August decision to call off its 2020 season entirely over the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting Canadian federal and provincial health regulations on sports, there’s been a lot of speculation about what’s ahead for the league. That move meant many players didn’t get paid, and even some of those who were supposed to be paid regardless of games (like B.C. Lions’ quarterback Mike Reilly) didn’t get what they were due, leading to filed contract grievances. And there’s giant uncertainty ahead about what the CFL’s 2021 plan is, especially given Canada’s slower (relative to the U.S.) vaccine rollout and especially given last week’s news on the CFL “exploring opportunities for alignment” with the remnants of the XFL (a league suspended in April 2020 that saw its remaining assets purchased in bankruptcy by Dany Garcia and former CFL player-turned-wrestler-turned movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and a league that announced this week that they were putting their own 2022 season plans on hold pending discussions with the CFL). That provided the optimum tinderbox for a group called The United Football Players Association to strike a spark with a tweet Tuesday, a tweet which claimed that the CFL was looking to cancel both its 2021 and 2022 seasons:
Important update regarding the immediate status(es) of the upcoming CFL and XFL seasons. We are sharing this information in an effort to keep players informed. This information has come to us directly from multiple sources. We will dig deeper and keep you posted. pic.twitter.com/udhm0wKcI9
— United Football Players Association (@UnitedFBPlayers) March 16, 2021
Before we get too far into this, it’s worth discussing just what the UFPA is and is not. As noted by the CFL Tuesday, they have no standing to bargain with the CFL; CFL players are members of the CFL Players’ Association, the union that’s represented CFL players since 1965. (Disclosure: I covered the CFL as an independent journalist with Yahoo Sports Canada from 2010-16, and wrote a few pieces for the CFLPA in 2017, but have had no relationship with them since that year.) So this is not the officially-recognized CFL players’ union that’s tweeting this. Rather, it’s a non-profit advocacy and welfare organization established last year “to push for the best interest of players outside of the NFL and NFLPA in order to avoid more negative situations similar to those that followed the bankruptcies of the XFL and AAF,” as per an October 2020 piece from Matt Lyons of XFL News Hub.
Along with creating a safety net, the UFPA is looking to give players an organized environment to voice any concerns about the way any of the alternative football leagues are run.
The UFPA seeks to negotiate specific workplace benefits similar to the NFLPA. The benefits desired include higher pay, better living arrangements, improved practice facility conditions, greater training/weightlifting opportunities, setting up the framework for a player’s name, image, and likeness to be used, and just more overall transparency in how alternative leagues such as the XFL are financed and operated.
One major difference between the UFPA and the NFLPA is the UFPA is not actually a players union and it is not authorized by the National Labor Relations Board to do any collective bargaining. Unlike NFL players, those in alternate football leagues cannot use the UFPA to go on strike or make labor demands.
As a 501(c)4 nonprofit entity under the Internal Revenue Code, the UFPA is a social welfare organization, which means it will use advocacy and education to push for what benefits the players will receive.
Having an organization such as the UFPA giving players a collective voice in a football league owned by a single entity like the AAF or XFL is in my opinion an absolute necessity. A league being owned by a single entity makes it fairly easy to limit player salaries, restrict free agency, and even more to manipulate aspects of the league in ways that players may see as unfair, with little to no consequences.
The UFPA as an association will seek to meet with league officials to bring attention to any concerns players have, giving them the collective voice they’ve lacked in the past.
There’s absolutely some merit to an advocacy organization on behalf of players outside the NFL, especially when it comes to U.S.-based leagues like the XFL and AAF that only lasted for a hot minute and left their players with a lot of problems after they folded. However, the CFL is a rather different kettle of fish. Unlike the countless U.S.-based “alternative” leagues that have fallen by the wayside over the past couple of decades, the CFL has been around continuously (in that name) since 1958, with many of its member clubs dating back much further, and with its biggest pause to date being last year’s skipped season as the result of a global pandemic. And it’s certainly curious that the UFPA is out here making provocative claims about a league that already has a recognized actual union rather than a non-profit advocacy organization.
Beyond that, though, the claims made by the UFPA are not necessarily false. It’s absolutely believable that “former and current league coaches and executives” have spoken to them. But that indicated sourcing should come with its own sets of questions. The CFL is currently in a high state of flux, and much of its future has nothing to do with anyone involved with the league at all. Rather, that future is in the hands of the Canadian federal and provincial health officials who determine what sorts of gatherings (including viewership of sports events) will be allowed this summer and fall.
Former league coaches and executives presumably have no knowledge of what CFL restrictions might be in place beyond anything they’ve gleaned from conversations with current executives. Even current coaches probably don’t have a lot of knowledge of that, and even some current executives may not have full information on what health authorities may or may not permit. The only actual relevant knowledge right now is with those health authorities. So any claims about a decided status for the 2021 CFL season should be viewed with significant skepticism. Right now, it seems unlikely that even CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie knows if they’re going to have a season this year, or if so, when it will start and what it will look like. Anonymous sources, especially including former coaches and executives, certainly do not know that definitively. And it’s especially absurd when those claims translate into 2022, a season which would presumably take place after pandemic issues are largely gone.
The UFPA’s citation of former coaches and executives here is particularly interesting. Yes, those people were plugged into the CFL at one point in time. But there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that they are now, especially with this current information both so closely-held and so reliant on outside health authorities. There’s zero reason to assign any credibility on the CFL’s current status to anyone not currently involved with the league, and there’s little reason to assign credibility to even the league’s current head coaches or general managers on this front. It’s not their decision. It’s a decision from health authorities.
And if those health authorities allow for CFL-level gatherings (even with, say, stadiums at half capacity, or a quarter capacity), it would be absolutely absurd for the league to not try and play even a shortened schedule based on some vague future discussion about a merger with the XFL (which, as noted above, is currently a bankrupt league with no teams and no players, just some remaining trademarks). There are huge benefits for the CFL from getting whatever games in they can this year, both in terms of their TSN TV contract (and to a much lesser degree, their ESPN+ deal in the U.S.) and in terms of their in-person attendance revenues. And their clubs so far have been putting out tons of free agent signing announcements, and behaving like there absolutely will be a season this year.
The other thing that comes to mind here is the absolute PR blunder from Kenneth Farrow II, the co-founder of the UFPA. In a video posted to the UFPA Twitter account Tuesday evening, Farrow started out with “There’s been a lot of comments and tweets about the announcement we made from our socials today, regarding the XFL and CFL postponement, the merger”:
A message to players from @KennethMFarrow and the UFPA board about transparency, accountability and avoiding the pitfalls that befell the XFL and AAF and left us fending for ourselves. https://t.co/LN4983tFXw
— United Football Players Association (@UnitedFBPlayers) March 16, 2021
At the moment, there is absolutely nothing suggesting a CFL and XFL “merger.” As noted above, the XFL is a bankrupt football league; congratulations to Johnson and Garcia on spending $15 million for its particular trademarks. The CFL is in a much stronger position; yes, the 2020 cancellation took a huge toll on it, and yes, if there actually wasn’t any CFL football played in 2021, that could be devastating for it. But we’re a long way from that right now, and all of the CFL/XFL conversations so far have been “alignment talks,” which might only result in something as minimal as non-contract interference (something the CFL has had with the NFL for a long time) or moves to jointly promote non-NFL football. There’s zero reported “merger” discussion right now, and any “merger” would seem ludicrously bad for the CFL, a league that’s done just fine in Canada and doesn’t appear to need a failed-for-the-second-time American also-ran league for much of anything.
Could some sort of CFL/XFL merger or combination happen at some point? Sure, why not? Leagues outside the NFL do have some things in common, and the CFL has ventured into the U.S. before, and that actually wound up okay for it in the long run. But it’s worth keeping in mind the dramatically unequal ground between the CFL, a long-established and well-beloved league in Canada (and slightly beyond), and the XFL, a bankrupt shell that just failed for a second time, but still got Garcia and Johnson to spend $15 million on it for some reason (instead of just starting their own league, a seemingly much-better path). And an executive of the UFPA starting his video with discussion of a “merger” is ludicrous, as no credible sources have brought that up at all.
The UFPA is absolutely within their rights to tweet whatever they want. And if former and current CFL coaches and executives think it’s worth talking to these people and then letting them spread comments anonymously, they can make that call. But these comments have very little bearing on the current discussions about the CFL’s 2021 season. And for those, it’s far better to look at reputable reporters like TSN’s Farhan Lalji and Dave Naylor:
For those that have been asking about this, it does not line up with anything @TSNDaveNaylor & I are hearing & have reported. Everything points to a 2021 season, inc a meeting at #CFL office on Friday about a 2021 roll out & meetings this week with #CFLPA on the coming season https://t.co/T0img5FsvA
— Farhan Lalji (@FarhanLaljiTSN) March 16, 2021
As noted above, the idea of an advocacy organization like the UFPA isn’t bad. And that’s especially true when it comes to fly-by-night American leagues like the XFL and AAF, whose brief sputterings led to a whole lot of problems for a whole lot of people. But the CFL is not in that boat, and it already has an actual union to represent its players. And for a U.S. advocacy organization to decide to take to Twitter to repeat rumors from former and current coaches and executives who likely don’t know the actual situation right now, that’s certainly a choice, and one that doesn’t reflect well on that organization. And when that organization’s key executive starts a response video on this with “merger,” something that’s been vehemently denied by actual CFL executives and reporters to date, it’s not a particularly good look for them, or for their credibility going forward.
[UFPA on Twitter]