Why the #1PlayAway push for expanded rehab coverage matters to the CFL’s players

By: Andrew Bucholtz

Injuries suffered by CFL players on the job are treated very differently from those suffered by people in many other Canadian professions, and the CFLPA isn’t happy with that. The players’ association launched a #1PlayAway campaign in March to try and raise awareness of how teams are currently only required to rehabilitate CFL players’ injuries for 12 months after an injury is suffered, a timeframe that doesn’t cover the full extent of injuries in some players’ cases and a timeframe that’s much shorter than what other workers in Canada receive. It’s also less than NFL, NHL and NBA athletes receive, as those players are covered by Workers’ Compensation Board or equivalent plans. CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay said the 12-month timeframe feels particularly unfair considering that other CFL employees have more permanent coverage.

“Currently there are no obligations for the clubs past the 12-month mark, and we believe that to be grossly inadequate,” Ramsay said. “The players are the only ones that are not currently covered for work-related injuries, whereas the coaches, management and even the commissioner and league office have those benefits provided to them as any other worker does.”

The public campaign is just the latest step the CFLPA has taken on this front. They submitted a proposed Workers’ Compensation Board application to the Alberta government last August, and began meeting with the CFL on this issue last fall. They’ve had both face-to-face and conference call meetings, but Ramsay says the league’s answer to date on extending the rehab timeline “has been a firm no.” However, the players’ association has also held meetings with various governmental officials on this and other matters.

In February, the CFLPA went to Parliament Hill and met with the Canadian Minister of Sport and the Canadian Minister of Health’s staff. They also had a meeting in Victoria with the BC Minister of Community, Sport, and Cultural Development and his staff. In March, they met in Regina with the Minister of Parks, Culture, Sport and Public Service Commission and staff, and met in Edmonton with the Minister of Culture and Tourism. Ramsay says these meetings have been primarily focused on two things; what the CFLPA can do to help improve head injury education, and the lack of ongoing rehabilitation support for CFLPA members.

“Our goals when meeting with the ministers were twofold,” Ramsay said. “First, we have begun to work with the federal government and Dr. Shelina Babul, the associate director and sports injury specialist at the BC Injury Research & Prevention Unit at BC Children’s Hospital.  The work they are doing with head injury awareness and teaching is extraordinary, and we are looking to find ways where the players can be appropriate vehicles to deliver the education pieces from the grassroots all the way to the professional level. We also specifically discussed the lack of rehabilitation currently set for professional athletes, specifically professional football in Canada and our application for WCB in Alberta.”

Ramsay said the meetings with federal and provincial governmental officials have produced important results so far.

“The feedback we have received to date has been excellent,” he said. “Not only have there been follow-up meetings, but we have been able to continue the work in harmonizing the education piece across the country. This is extremely important for athletes of any sport and the coaches and family that work and live with them.”

The rehab issue isn’t solved at the moment, though, and that poses severe problems for some CFLPA members. One case in point is that of defensive back Jonathan Hefney, who played for Winnipeg in 2009 and from 2010-13, for Calgary in 2013-14 and for Montreal in 2015. Hefney suffered a career-ending neck injury while with the Alouettes in October 2015, but Ramsay said only one of the three scheduled surgeries to address that was during the 12-month rehabilitation window. Ramsay said that means Hefney isn’t covered for those other surgeries and still can’t use his arms fully, and that’s impacted his ability to find other work.

“Jonathan suffered a broken neck and still to this day has not regained full ability of his limbs,” Ramsay said. “The obligation from the club was to rehabilitate the member for 12 months, which only put Jonathan to the point of addressing one of three scheduled surgeries for his injury. Currently there are no obligations for the clubs past the 12-month mark, and we believe that to be grossly inadequate.”

Ramsay said the Hefney case is just one of many CFL players have faced, but it’s a perfect illustration of the problems he sees with the current system.

“It is a real-time example with unfortunately devastating results,” he said. “It is a very clear example of what is wrong with the current standards.”

The CFL’s stance has been that this is a collective bargaining issue, and that it should be left until the CBA expires in 2019. That CBA can be amended before then if both sides agree, though, as happened with the drug policy.

“Rehabilitation and player safety should not be bargaining chips,” Ramsay said. “There are always pieces to bargain in an agreement, we accept and understand that. However, we just don’t believe the health and well-being of a player should be one of those. There’s a solution here, and it’s not a difficult one.”

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