TORONTO — Former CFL board chairman Jim Lawson has serious concerns regarding whether the league will play this season.
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie announced last month the earliest the league would begin an abbreviated 2020 season is sometime in September. But he also stated a cancelled campaign remains possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawson became CFL board chairman in 2013 and twice served as interim commissioner during his tenure. He stepped down last November after receiving the Commissioner's Award, which annually recognizes dedication and significant contribution to Canadian football, from Ambrosie.
That allowed Lawson, a 61-year-old Hamilton native, to concentrate full-time on his duties as chief executive officer of Woodbine Entertainment Group, Canada's largest racetrack operator. He assumed that position in 2015 after spending three years as chair.
Lawson believes it will be difficult for the CFL to play games this season.
"Listen, I love the CFL," he said. "I don't know the details of the discussions that have gone on . . . but my concern is it's not May where you've got a lot of players chomping at the bit and anxious to play.
"There's a risk assessment that each player will need to undertake before agreeing to play during this pandemic. This isn't May where you're doing a collective bargaining agreement. This feels a little different."
The CFL and CFL Players' Association have traditionally had an acrimonious relationship. Contract talks in 2014 and '19 both became testy and often heated before agreements were finally hammered out.
On Thursday, CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay and numerous players took to social media to voice their dissatisfaction and frustration with Ambrosie and the state of talks between the league and union regarding an abbreviated '20 campaign. Ramsay stated the CFLPA hadn't received "concrete ideas regarding a 2020 collective agreement from the CFL, as was promised, nor concrete direction about opportunities for a 2020 season."
Ambrosie's leadership took another serious hit Monday night amid reports he unilaterally imposed a reduction of the football operations cap for 2021. The cap was originally set at $2.59 million, but now must be at $2 million next season.
"@RandyAmbrosie you taking a pay cut too?" tweeted Montreal running back James Wilder Jr. "Asking for a friend!!!!"
Added retired Calgary punter Rob Maver: "He's stooped to taking away more from the people at the bottom of the pay scale instead of telling the owners to quit spending lavishly on flashy, big-name hires only to turn around and dole out millions to stay at home. Randy Ambrosie take a bow!"
Lawson is familiar with the often strained relationship between the CFL and CFLPA. He was heavily involved in 2014 CBA talks and participated in the '19 negotiation process.
"This is a very different negotiation than the collective bargaining agreement," he said. "When you're going through those collective bargaining agreements and they're timed for May, there's always a feeling that the players definitely need to play and want to play.
"I don't get that sense this time around."
The '20 regular season was originally scheduled to begin Thursday night. But last week B.C. Lions receiver Bryan Burnham tweeted: "With all that's been going on I haven't really been thinking about football. But realizing I should be getting ready for game 1 of the season right now is a weird feeling. Missing all my @bclions teammates and all @cfl fans."
There's plenty for CFL players to consider, including the increased risk of injury, playing fewer games in colder conditions (Winnipeg and Regina have been mentioned as potential hub cities) and the threat of contracting the novel coronavirus. There's also the matter of players who've secured off-season work having to quit those jobs and leave their families behind for decreased pay cheques.
The Canada-U.S. border remains closed for non-essential travel and will until July 21. People flying into Canada must self-isolate for 14 days.
"My own view is because the players are coming with a different attitude that you've got a different situation which is going to take a lot of collaboration from both sides to overcome," Lawson said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press