With potential NFL labour armageddon looming, the speculation about what an NFL lockout could mean for the CFL is well underway. Actually, it's been underway for some time; an intriguing Metro New York article from late February on how the CFL and UFL could benefit from an NFL lockout mentioned that 2010 Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin (currently a free agent, last with the Tennessee Titans, who he's pictured practicing with at right in May 2010) and other players have already been contacted by CFL and UFL teams, and that fits right in with Baltimore radio station WNST's report that people from both leagues have at least had conversations with Pro Bowl-calibre players about their plans in the event of a lockout. However, don't expect the CFL to become "NFL North" any time soon; there are many indications that any lockout influx of NFL talent is more likely to be a trickle than a flood, but one factor in particular may prevent too many NFL players from even considering the CFL. As Lowell Ullrich explains, that factor is a recent rule change in last year's CBA:
Whether it's a condition of the protracted negotiations between the NFL and its players' union, the Lions are feeling no added interest from agents looking to place unsigned clients in advance of the latest deadline Friday.
In fact, what the CFL did in phasing out the option-year contract provision in the collective bargaining agreement signed last summer could end up having far more of a cooling effect.
"The reason I liked the NFL window wasn't because we lost a player; it was all the players we signed," said [B.C. Lions general manager/head coach Wally] Buono, who was talking up the idea last weekend.
"Now we're getting players saying they don't want to sign for two years if they don't get to be a free agent."
That option-year provision allowed CFL players like Andy Fantuz (who signed with the Chicago Bears earlier this offseason) to test the NFL waters before their contract was officially up. Obviously, eliminating it works for CFL executives in some ways, as it means players they develop are likely to stick around at least a little longer. However, as Ullrich points out, it might hurt the overall talent of the league; many of the Americans who currently come north, especially the younger ones, are looking to get back to the NFL. Tighter CFL contract provisions make them less likely to do so, even in the event of a lockout; if the NFL shuts down, no one knows how long it will be gone for, but many players aren't going to want to tie themselves down with long-term contracts they can't get out of when the American game resumes. It's particularly notable that Ullrich states Buono is talking up the idea of bringing the option-year provision back; the Lions have arguably lost more top talent to the NFL in recent years than any other CFL team, including wide receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux this offseason. If Buono thinks the league's gone too far to try and retain its current talent, there's a good chance it probably has.
It's not just the option year that may keep NFL players away, though. For one thing, the CFL has an agreement with the NFL that they won't touch players under contract in the event of a lockout, and league officials have consistently reiterated that that policy will not change. That makes plenty of sense in my mind, as the CFL has a lot to gain by staying on the NFL's good side (including more CFL broadcasts on NFL Network, which were a huge boon for the league last year); it does mean that only a small number of NFL players would even be eligible to consider the CFL, though. Furthermore, those free-agent players will generally be older guys, and those guys would be less likely to head north in any case; most of them have already made a good amount of money, so they're probably not as likely to be in dire financial straits during a lockout as some of the younger players. CFL teams would generally have more interest in picking up younger guys and developing them, anyway, and younger guys would be more willing to take the lower salaries offered in the CFL.
Also, keep in mind that even if there is a lockout, no one has any idea when it will end. Many previous labour battles have ended mid-year, and you can bet that the vast majority of NFL players will want to be ready if this one follows suit. The CFL isn't a good option that way, as its contracts essentially prevent players from joining NFL teams during their season (even though the CFL year wraps up in November), so even a one-year deal would stop a player from heading back south immediately once a labour accord is reached. By contrast, the UFL has been much more open to players moving back and forth, so it will probably be the first choice for many NFL guys (it's also considerably closer to home for them, and playing there would be less of a culture shock). There's also the changes in the game itself; the UFL plays essentially by the NFL rules, while Canadian football is vastly different thanks to the extra men and the wider field; as we've seen before, that may be one reason older, experienced CFL players find so much more success up here than raw, athletic young guys. That serves as a limiting factor on both ends; the different rules make the CFL a less-appealing option for guys looking to get back to the NFL quickly, and it also lowers CFL teams' interest in NFL stars, as there's no guarantee they'll be able to adapt to the Canadian game.
At this point, there's still no real indication if there will be an NFL lockout, and even if there is, we can't be sure what it will mean for the CFL. We certainly could see some players coming north in the event of a work stoppage, and perhaps even a few established NFL stars like Babin will make the trek. From a purely personnel perspective, though, the impact of an NFL lockout on the CFL seems much more likely to be minimal than massive. That doesn't mean it won't be important to follow, as even a couple of prominent NFL free agents signing up here could be quite intriguing and even small changes do have on-field effects, but any talk of a mass exodus of NFL stars to Canada seems unfounded at this moment.