The players never really had a chance.
The Canadian Football League owners and players' association reached a tentative settlement on the weekend, and the owners mostly got the monetary deal they wanted from the beginning. The deal still needs to be ratified by players – which remains an open question given some public dissension – but a bigger rumbling among veterans is the union never had a chance because it was completely overmatched.
"We as a union were unprepared for how prepared the CFL was," said Jon Cornish, the league's most-outstanding player last season, in an interview on Monday morning. "It's all about preparation. We talked about being prepared to strike or whatever, but real plans weren't really in place. Whereas I think the CFL was prepared for all contingencies."
The Calgary Stampeders running back made one of the bolder statements on Twitter Saturday night when news of the deal broke. "How it works in the 21st century: Unions are dead."
"There is no heat of the moment," said Cornish of the tweet. "I tweeted exactly what I felt. I've always been a large advocate of unions. I grew up in an NDP town. For me, unions have always been part of what I thought a good business should have."
Cornish was philosophical about the decline of unions over the past several decades, and said his tweet was an expression of that feeling, rather than a specific take on the CFL players' association and the new contract.
In a wide-ranging conversation – unusual for most star pro athletes in 2014 – Cornish spoke about topics from labour laws favouring corporations to growing up poor in the Vancouver suburb of New Westminster, in a family of five kids and a single mother, who was a music teacher.
"My mom was always looking for ways to make ends meet. We had our power cut off a few times – that was always fun," he said. "We were sort of on the brink all the time. It wasn't poverty. I was never hungry. But I understand the plight of people who don't have much."
Cornish's view that the players were overmatched in the contract talks with team owners is one that other veterans have expressed off the record in other reports.
The simplest way to express the gaping divide between the power of the league and the power of the players is the two sides' legal counsels. The CFL's lawyer is Stephen Shamie, one of the best in Canada. Shamie is managing partner of Toronto-based Hicks Morley and has been named numerous times as one of the best labour lawyers in the country and has made the Lexpert list of top Canadian lawyers every year since 2005.
The players were represented by Edward Molstad, who has been the players' association legal counsel for the past four decades and is a former defensive end for the Edmonton Eskimos. He works for the Alberta firm Parlee McLaws and is a generalist known for his work as a trial lawyer, including at the Supreme Court, and is a top lawyer in aboriginal law.
"It just seems that companies are increasingly well prepared for work stoppages and what not, across the board," said Cornish. "Corporations – they might not necessarily always have the money, but they definitely know how to hire the talent to prepare them for different situations."
The tentative contract settlement begins with a salary cap of $5-million, up from $4.4-million last year and slightly higher than an earlier owners' proposal of $4.8-million. The union first wanted revenue sharing, then proposed a cap of $6.8-million, yet settled for $5-million.
The deal is reported to be five years – and the cap would increase at about half the rate of inflation each year.
The CFL has long been a tough business for some franchises, but it is suddenly much wealthier than it once was thanks to a big new TV deal with TSN, which is worth a reported $2.7-million per team annually. The new contract gives players less than a third of that new money.
A vote to ratify the deal will face at least some opposition. Cornish's teammate Nik Lewis declared Sunday he would vote against. Cornish on Monday said he was keeping his vote private. He did not express bitterness, either, and said he is excited to play football. "I want to play football, that's what I want."
He's got business to settle on the field.
The Stampeders had the league's best regular-season record last year, but lost the West Division final to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who went on the win the Grey Cup. The Stamps lost the Grey Cup to Toronto the previous year. Cornish, now 29, led the league in rushing with 1,813 yards (and 12 touchdowns), topping his own record for a Canadian back.
He was the first Canadian to win the CFL's most outstanding player award since 1978, before he was born. He also won the 2013 Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's top athlete, joining past winners such as Wayne Gretzky, Steve Nash and Christine Sinclair.