Chris Williams’ contract complaint bears investigation

There's an interesting situation developing in Hamilton, with star Tiger-Cats' returner/receiver Chris Williams apparently looking for a way out of his contract. According to Drew Edwards, he may have found one. Williams signed a deal for two years plus a third year with a team option in 2011, and the Tiger-Cats obviously exercised that option given his success, keeping him around through the 2013 season. Williams is now saying that the Tiger-Cats didn't offer him the option of signing a minimum-term contract (one year plus a team option) in 2011, which would be a violation of the CFL's collective bargaining agreement and could potentially provide a way for him to get out of the last year of this current deal. From Edwards:

Multiple sources say the Ticats receiver and kick returner has asked the CFL player's association to investigate whether the team violated the terms of the collective bargaining agreement with hopes of having the final year of his contract with the club declared void.

At issue is a little-known provision within the league's CBA which stipulates that every player must be offered a minimum-term contract – one-year plus a team-held option – even if the club is offering as longer-term contract as well. Williams was signed to a three-year contract (two-year-plus-an-option) in May 2011 and is contending that he was not offered a minimum deal at the time.

Tiger-Cats' head coach/general manager Kent Austin (who was just hired this offseason; it would have been former GM Bob O'Billovich's administration who negotiated Williams' deal) told Edwards a concern has been raised by Williams and agent Dan Vertlieb, but the team hasn't received a formal complaint and still views Williams' contract as binding. Thus, if the league and/or the players' association don't elect to push things any further, it's quite possible Williams' contract won't be voided. (Whether he'll actually fulfil it is another matter; he could easily just sit out this season, but that might not help his NFL cause.) However, while Williams' claim may seem like an attempt to find a loophole, it actually brings up an important point, and it should be thoroughly considered.

Edwards is quite right that this provision's little-known, but it serves an important purpose. Keep in mind that many American players aren't all that familiar with the CFL or its contract rules when they first arrive, and if they have agents who don't specialize in the CFL, they may not be aware of what exactly the minimum contract length is. The idea behind this rule would seem to be to alert new players to the league's contract rules, and that's a good concept. Minimum-length contracts aren't a bad thing, either; yes, they'll result in a few defections to the NFL, but as with the discussion of the old option year (which allowed players to pursue NFL options while still under contract to a CFL team), the NFL's a goal for most CFL players, but is only actually reachable by a few (and only a few of that select group will stick south of the border for any length of time).

The minimum-length contract is a useful way to allow players to retain NFL dreams. The vast majority of them aren't going to achieve those dreams and will probably wind up resigning with their current CFL team, so it's not like these contracts are draining the CFL of talent. Players should be aware of minimum-length contracts, though, and they shouldn't feel they have to commit to the CFL for a long period of time in order to play north of the border. Moreover, when players still under CFL contract feel they should be in the NFL, it leads to complicated situations like this Williams drama that usually don't work out well for anyone involved; shorter contracts can help avoid those. Some fans and CFL executives might prefer it if players were locked up for a longer contract term, but forcing longer contracts would likely have a perilous effect on the calibre of CFL talent. Many great players come up here with the hopes of starring for a year or two and parleying that into an NFL job; if the path from the CFL to the NFL gets too hard, they'll look at other leagues first.

Moreover, if the reported NFL interest in Williams is accurate, it's completely understandable why he wants to try and get out of his CFL contract and why he won't sign an extension with Hamilton. Consider the financial issues at stake. As Edwards writes, Williams is likely making between $50,000 and $60,000 this year; the team's proposing a new contract that would put him amongst the top-earning import, non-quarterback players (probably between $150,000-$200,000 annually), but the minimum he'd make if he made an NFL active roster this year would be $405,000, and even an NFL practice roster spot would carry a salary of $90,000. If he's able to show anything in the NFL, his salary would likely skyrocket even further.

It's understandable why the Tiger-Cats want to keep a talented player like Williams, but trying to make it to the NFL's a rational decision on his part (he's only 25, he's an explosive player, and returner in particular is a position where NFL teams have often been willing to look to CFL-groomed talents). Moreover, his claim that he wasn't offered a minimum-length deal would deserve investigation even if he didn't have a good look at the NFL. The CFL should make prospective players very clear about their options and the potential length of contracts. It might help to avoid messy situations like this one in the future.

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