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Andrew Bucholtz

Are Jason Babin and other NFLers serious about the CFL?

Andrew Bucholtz
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Some comments 2010 Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin (pictured, right) made to The Tennessean are drawing plenty of attention both north and south of the border, and that's understandable. As Shutdown Corner's Doug Farrar wrote, Babin's comments that he was considering joining a CFL team thanks to the ongoing NFL lockout fit right in with statements made by George Atallah and other members of the NFLPA leadership on how many NFL guys may seek alternative leagues to play in this year. However, comments alone don't mean that Babin or any other prominent NFLer will be suiting up in the CFL this June, and looking at the other factors involved, it seems more likely that we're not going to see a lot of NFL players north of the border.

As I wrote last week, there are several factors likely to limit the impact of the NFL lockout on the CFL from a player personnel side (other aspects of the labour dispute, such as potentially increased American television broadcast opportunities for the CFL, may have a larger effect). One of the most crucial limiting factors is that the CFL has made it very clear that teams will only be allowed to pursue players who aren't currently under NFL contracts. That's obviously different from the NFLPA's stance that "Once the CBA expires, [the players are] unemployed", but the relative merits of each position aren't under debate here; if the league won't allow its teams to offer deals to under-contract NFL players, the players can't do much about it.

From a CFL standpoint, yes, this is limiting the potential labour pool, but it still seems like a smart move. The CFL and NFL have generally been on quite good terms over the last few decades, with the NFL even stepping in to loan the CFL money in 1997, and the Canadian league has plenty of good reasons to maintain diplomatic relations instead of starting a feud. For one thing, if they started breaching NFL contracts, the NFL could do the same once play eventually starts up again south of the border, possibly even stealing guys in the middle of the CFL season. That's a can of worms the CFL definitely doesn't want to open up, as many of their players would likely jump to the NFL mid-season in a heartbeat if made a good offer, with potentially catastrophic consequences on the teams they left behind. Another factor is that the NFL Network may be the best solution for American CFL broadcasts, and keeping the NFL happy adds to the chances that a deal will get done there. Thirdly, there's still the looming spectre of a potential NFL franchise in Toronto, and that's much less likely to happen if the CFL and NFL remain on good terms. Finally, there's always Pierre Elliott Trudeau's famous saying about sleeping with an elephant, which remains just as true for the interactions of Canadian and American football as it does for cross-border relations; the NFL's actions are generally going to have an impact on the CFL (even if they aren't devised with the CFL in mind), and the NFL is more likely to consider the CFL's side of things if the CFL isn't poaching their players.

Of course, all that only applies to players who are under contract to the NFL, not free agents like Babin. There is a chance that some of that latter class could actually come north of the border. However, that chance isn't all that high. Perhaps the largest factor that might keep NFL players away is the move in the last CBA (signed just before the season last year) to kill the option year that allowed CFL players to try out for NFL teams before the last year of their contract. With that gone, anyone who signs a CFL contract is stuck north of the border for at least two years, and few think the NFL lockout is likely to last that long. Also keep in mind that the CFL has a reasonably low salary cap, and many teams are likely already close to it thanks to free-agency signings and contract extensions. There isn't a lot of money there to throw at NFL free agents.

For the locked-out NFL players, there aren't a lot of reasons to come north. Yes, the CFL is probably the most prestigious alternate league currently in existence, but spending two years in unfamiliar (and often chilly) climates playing at least 18 games a year for significantly less money than they're used to earning isn't the most appealing prospect for many of them. When you throw in the CFL's substantially different brand of football, which means there's a lot more work involved to try and get up to speed, crossing the border gets significantly less attractive. If the CFL was the only alternative out there, those concerns might be reasonably minor when weighed against the opportunity to pick up a decent paycheque during the work stoppage. It's not, though; the UFL's already around, and it offers the chance to play closer to home, shorter-term contracts that could allow players to head back to the NFL after one season or less and a familiar brand of football. If the UFL gets a better television deal and more investors thanks to the NFL's issues, its teams might be able to throw out bigger contracts and reel in more notable NFL players. It may not be the only alternative, either, as other US-based leagues could also start up in an attempt to take advantage of the NFL labour strife.

Moreover, CFL teams don't really have a lot of incentives to sign NFL players, particularly not the lower-tier guys who might be the only ones interested in playing two years north of the border for minimal pay. First off, most players who come north of the border take quite a while to adapt to the Canadian game, with the majority only making notable impacts after a year or two, so it's not like signing an NFL player will definitely lead to instant success. Lower-tier NFL guys might have an edge in raw athleticism over many Canadian players, but there's significant evidence suggesting experience is more important than athleticism up here, so they might not make much of a difference on the field (and they'd probably cost a fair bit, making a team's cap situation difficult). Furthermore, by the time they'd adapted to the Canadian rules and started to make an on-field impact, they'd probably be heading back to the NFL. The CFL has also historically been more interested in developing young American players (largely because of the adaptation time required), and the young guys in the NFL are generally still under contract.

Signing NFL guys, especially the marginal ones, isn't likely to really do much for a team's gate or broadcast revenues either; the CFL's considerable appeal is based on its history, its teams' connections to their cities and the stars who have been around here for quite a while. Babin might be one of the higher-profile NFL free agents who'd even consider an offer from the CFL (although I doubt he'd seriously consider it), but I'll bet anything more people up here know the names of Henry Burris and Anthony Calvillo than Jason Babin. Ricky Williams was a huge NFL star when he landed in the CFL, and he certainly attracted some interest, but I don't think his impact on the Argonauts' gate revenues was all that high, and most of the NFL guys who would take a look at the CFL would be far less well-known than him.

We certainly can't entirely rule out NFL players coming north at this time, particularly with guys like Babin saying they're interested. However, it seems much more likely from this corner that many of them are using CFL interest as a stalking horse to try and get better deals from the UFL (or any other league that springs up), or just as a ploy to show the NFL that the players aren't getting desperate for work. I wouldn't be surprised if a few NFL players eventually wind up signing CFL deals, but to me, it seems much more likely to be the guys on the margins than Pro Bowl players like Babin. Talk is one thing, but committing yourself to play at least two years by different rules in unfamiliar climates is something else entirely.

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