Monday's discussion of Stephen Brunt's case for the CFL to enhance its reputation as a developmental league kicked off some interesting debate, with some surprised that isn't considered obvious and others firmly resisting the idea of the league trying to be a pathway to the NFL for certain players. There was one particularly interesting point brought up during that debate by Ron Podbielski, who argued that the CFL doesn't need to particularly cater to American players thanks to their lack of other high-level options. Podbielski has a point there: while there are other American leagues, including the AFL, most haven't lasted too long (one recent promising option with plenty of talent, the UFL, appears to have met its demise), and there's a strong argument to be made that the CFL is the best (and most reliable and consistent) level of professional football that isn't the NFL. However, the CFL's current low salaries and restrictive contracts do still perhaps prevent the league from getting some of the best possible available players, and the story of Levi Horn provides an interesting case in point there.
Horn, the 6'7'' 330-pound tackle who was trying out for the B.C. Lions, may be familiar to readers. He was profiled here last week, as his status as a registered member of the Cheyenne tribe meant B.C. would have been an outlier in pro sports thanks to having two aboriginal players on the roster (Horn and Cree safety J.R. LaRose). That's not going to be happening now, though, as Horn elected to leave the team and head back to Kansas City to take another job. His rationale? According to Mike Beamish of The Vancouver Sun, the practice-roster spot the Lions were likely to offer him (and its extremely limited compensation, which Lowell Ullrich estimates at $500 a week) just wasn't enough to keep him around:
Levi Horn spent two seasons on the practice roster of the Chicago Bears. The prospect of spending another season on the PR of the B.C. Lions forced the 26-year-old offensive lineman from Spokane, Wash., into action Tuesday. He left the team, just as his first CFL training camp was about to end.
“He saw what the roster looked like and, coupled with a great job opportunity back in Kansas City, he decided to leave,” explained Lions head coach Mike Benevides. “He has a wife and a child to support. He decided he had to make the best choice for his family. He did what he had to do.”
The point here isn't to try and make this into a full-blown crisis. The Lions obviously never needed Horn to start, as they return two dominant tackles in Jovan Olafioye and Ben Archibald, and he wasn't necessarily going to beat out Ben Ossai and Kyle Fischer for the backup job anyway. However, he was a player B.C. liked, and their offer wasn't good enough to keep him around. Stories like this at the roster margins do matter; they illustrate that for some, given the current low levels of pay for non-star CFL players, it may be well worth finding work in other occupations (Horn reportedly has a job lined up in casino management). One or two cases like that at the edges of a roster aren't necessarily a huge deal, but they do illustrate that the current CFL structure isn't enough to grab every non-NFL player teams would ideally like, and that's notable.
It's not just about practice-roster players, either. Former all-star Lions' DT Khalif Mitchell cited a lucrative job in Seattle as his rationale for initially refusing to report to Toronto, and current holdout Hamilton WR Chris Williams may decide that it's not worth risking his body for less than $50,000 this year if he could land ten times that in the NFL next season. The Mitchell situation didn't wind up leading to anything, as he's now playing for the Argos, and Williams may still return to the Tiger-Cats, but it's worth pointing out that despite the league's quality of play, CFL salaries (especially for less-experienced players) aren't necessarily enough to sell talent on Canadian football. Heck, many players work other jobs during the offseason, and some even manage to juggle a second job during the season.
It can be argued that this isn't a huge problem right now, as the CFL's obviously still pulling in substantial talent. However, some of that's less about what it's doing right and what American competitors are doing wrong. None of the non-NFL U.S. pro circuits have proven terribly stable or effective, and even the long-running AFL has gone through some dramatic crises over the years (including the dissolution of the original AFL and its replacement with the minor AF2 circuit back in 2009). As Podbielski pointed out, there aren't a lot of great professional alternatives to the CFL for aspiring players right now. That doesn't mean there won't be eventually, though, and if a compelling, stable and high-quality U.S.-based developmental league does some day pop up, the debates over if the CFL is worth it for top-tier American players may intensify, and it may be far more than just practice-roster players turning down the league.
How can this be addressed? Well, one thing that will likely happen will involve boosting both minimum salaries and the team-by-team salary caps. The CFL's collective bargaining agreement (which governs both of those areas) expires following the 2013 campaign, and the new CBA should involve more money going to players given the increased TV revenues that will kick in next year. However, this is more likely to be a gradual change than an earth-shattering one, and while it will make the CFL moderately more attractive for some players, spending likely won't skyrocket (and probably shouldn't, as the league does need to maintain some form of its remarkably good cap and needs to excise some fiscal responsibility to keep itself healthy for the long-term). Thus, CFL teams aren't going to suddenly start making players offers they can't refuse.
There's a non-financial side that may matter even more, though, and that's where we go back to the argument for the CFL boosting its developmental league characteristics. Simply put, the easier it is to go from the CFL to the NFL, the more top players will come up here (and the more likely they'll be willing to toil for small wages for a few years in hopes of catching a big NFL payday down the road). As only a few of those with NFL dreams are able to cash in on them, too, sliding closer to a developmental league may mean that many come and few leave. It's not a black-and-white argument, though, as there are obvious perils at both extremes: become too close to the NFL and you lose what makes the CFL unique and what draws fans to it, but make it too difficult for players to use the CFL as a springboard to the NFL and your calibre of talent will drop sharply. Still, measures that would smooth the CFL to NFL pathway (particularly, the reinstatement of the option year) might provide a substantial boost to the league's recruitment efforts and to its calibre of talent without noticeably increasing its costs.
As things stand right now, this situation is more worth discussing as a curiosity than a crisis. Thanks to the lack of compelling alternatives, the CFL's still pulling in great talent, and the numbers of people with solid football backgrounds who attend open tryouts in the hope of even an incredibly long shot at making a CFL roster speaks to that. Moreover, cases like Horn's and even Williams' are relatively rare; for most CFL players, the current combination of salary and potential NFL preparation's enough to keep them around. It's just worth noting that while playing in the CFL is a goal for many, it's not a universal goal, and the league can't always land every player it might want. Whether the current situation itself is enough to bring in substantial salary boosts or talk about loosening the CFL to NFL restrictions can be debated, but it's clear the league does need to keep an eye on not just the players who do come north, but also on those who, like Horn, eventually turn Canadian football down. If those numbers rise, then the league may have to improve its recruitment incentives.