Lockout fears may affect NFL/CFL decision for Hunt, others

Andrew Bucholtz

Mark Masters has an interesting piece in today's National Post about how the NFL's labour uncertainty may affect some of the CFL players looking to head south. Normally, leaving for the NFL would be a pretty easy choice thanks to the increased money involved, but there's a good chance there might not even be an NFL season next year thanks to the expiry of the league's collective bargaining agreement and the apparently limited progress that's been made so far.

If CFL players sign with NFL teams and then get locked out by NFL owners, it seems probable they couldn't return up north next year; the CFL would likely pick up some NFL free agents, but probably wouldn't risk angering the bigger league by signing guys under current contracts; even if CFL teams tried that, many NFL players probably wouldn't go for it thanks to uncertainty about when exactly a lockout would end. That could see guys like star Winnipeg defensive end Phillip Hunt (pictured above chasing down Calgary quarterback Henry Burris) caught between the two leagues, and as Masters writes, that's forcing them to weigh the chances of a bigger potential payday in the NFL against the guaranteed job provided in the CFL:

"You have to keep in mind that the CFL is a league that is not going through labour trouble or threats of a lockout, so you keep that in your back pocket," Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive lineman Phillip Hunt said. "The NFL is usually a great option, but you need to do what is right for your family."

It's remarkable that players like Hunt are even considering perhaps staying up north, as the lure of the NFL's usually pretty strong. The NFL's minimum salary for active roster players is $285,000, which is up there with the top-paying CFL contracts and probably better than any non-quarterback makes. Most players make more than the minimum. Even players on a NFL practice squad make at least $88,400 if they're there for a full year, which is certainly comparable to or better than most non-quarterback CFL salaries.

Most CFL players haven't done all that well in the NFL, but the success some players like Cameron Wake and Stefan Logan have found will motivate many to keep trying in hopes of a big payday. Even if they don't do all that well, they're not really taking a hit in the pocketbook thanks to the NFL's high practice roster and active roster minimum saliers. That's just the financial side; for Americans like Hunt, there's also the lure of playing in their own country, close to friends and family and on one of the world's biggest stages. As he explains, though, he's got more on his mind than just where he'd ideally like to play:

"The NFL has been my ultimate goal my whole life," Hunt said. "As a kid growing up, I idolized the Dallas Cowboys and it has been a lifelong dream for me to play in the NFL, but I have realized throughout my career that you can't let dreams take over reality. ... You can't put your family on hold for the NFL. You can't put your family on the backburner. There needs to be guaranteed money."

Timing may also have an impact. Labour talks are still a long way from getting anywhere, and they're not expected to really heat up until at least March. One of the major indicators of if there's likely to be a 2011 NFL season may come around the draft at the end of April, as rookie salaries are a hotly-debated point of negotiations. Unfortunately for players like Hunt, Chad Owens and Andy Fantuz who are all in their CFL option years, their window to sign an NFL deal expires in February. It doesn't seem likely that there will be substantial progress on CBA talks by then, so they may have to guess and hope on whether to head south or not.

There is one crucial issue that may be resolved before February, though, and it could serve as a litmus test as to whether CFL players should consider heading south or not. This Tuesday, a special master began reviewing one of the NFLPA's critical complaints filed last June, which argues that NFL owners took less money in television contracts in exchange for having the money guaranteed. Essentially, TV networks still have to pay the NFL $4.5 billion next year even if no games are played. That's a fair chunk of change for the teams, and they wouldn't have to dole it out to players, stadium staff, contractors and the rest, so some teams might even make more money from a lockout than a season.

The union is arguing that thanks to TV revenue being shared with the players, the league has an obligation to seek maximum value rather than guaranteed money in television deals. If they win the case, the money could be put into escrow until a new CBA is reached (so it wouldn't provide a financial cushion for the owners) or even partially awarded to the players. Either outcome would dramatically increase the owners' incentive to reach a deal rather than have a lockout, but if the special master rules in favour of the league, the owners will have a substantial financial advantage heading into a work stoppage. The case hasn't been decided yet, but its outcome could provide direction for the CFL players trying to figure out which way to go. They'll be hoping it gets resolved before their February deadline.