Free agents homing in on U.S.

May 06, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

The Baltimore CFL Colts were quick to capitalize on the newest trend in the Canadian Football League: American-born players who want to come home to the States.

Quarterback Tracy Ham took less money to play in Baltimore than he could have had with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Linebackers O. J. Brigance and Ken Benson came to es- cape Canada's heavy tax rate. And defensive back Ken Watson just wanted to play in the U.S.

The Colts have lured five U.S.-born free agents from Canadian teams so far. Of 18 American-born free agents in the CFL this year, eight have signed with U.S. expansion teams, one with the NFL Buffalo Bills, and four stayed in Canada. The remaining five are still on the fence.

"If a guy is making $50,000 Canadian and is offered $45,000 American, he'll probably take the $45,000," said Watson, a native of Birmingham, Ala., who signed with the Colts last month. "I'd rather play in the States."

Benson, who spent two years with the Toronto Argonauts, cited the exchange rate on the Canadian dollar and the high taxes in Canada as inducements for returning to the U.S. "Toronto was a pretty expensive place," he said. "With the exchange rate and taxes, I lost $3,000-$4,000 there."

The potential exodus concerns some Canadians. The teams that can't pay to keep the best players likely will fall behind from a competitive standpoint.

"It's a new issue that has to be addressed head-on," said Toronto attorney Dan Lawson, Ham's agent. "It's a dollars and cents issue, one that can be understood and can be resolved."

Commissioner Larry Smith said the league may need to consider a right-to-match clause in its free-agency rules. CFL Players' Association president Dan Ferrone said it may require higher Canadian salaries or the opportunity for off-season employment for imports. American players or family members cannot hold other jobs in Canada. But Ferrone isn't ready to panic yet. "Let's see what happens and adjust accordingly," he said. "I've lived with the gloom and doom [surrounding the CFL] so long and it's still here."

Bottoms up

Under Bruce McNall's stewardship, the Argonauts won a Grey Cup in 1991, fell to 6-12 a year later, and hit bottom at 3-15 last season. Yesterday, the topsy-turvy McNall era ended in Toronto with the news the team has been sold to The Sport Network -- Canada's equivalent of ESPN and a subsidiary of Labatt's Breweries -- for $6.5 million.

The deal removes the cloud of doubt and $1 million in debt that hung over the franchise since McNall's financial empire began to crumble in 1992.

It's an interesting arrangement because Labatt's also runs the Toronto Blue Jays. And the man who will attempt to resurrect the Argos is Blue Jays president Paul Beeston. He'll serve in a similar capacity with the Argos, whose season overlaps significantly with the Blue Jays.

Peace talks, anyone?

Smith said he's behind Baltimore owner Jim Speros in the legal fight to retain the Colts' name, but he isn't ready to launch a war with the NFL.

"We don't look at this as the CFL taking the NFL on," Smith said. "That's not the issue. The issue is between Speros and the NFL Properties folks. Hopefully, something can be worked out between the two parties. Our approach is what is ultimately best for the fans."

Smith may be encouraging a settlement because the CFL is named in the NFL's lawsuit.

The NFL suit has had Colts' business fairly booming this week. Since Monday, the team has sold more than $4,000 worth of CFL merchandise, almost doubling the previous weekly average of $2,200.

Newest additions

The Colts acquired wide receiver Joe Howard-Johnson, a four-year NFL veteran, from the Sacramento Gold Miners for future considerations yesterday. Howard-Johnson, who spent three years with the Washington Redskins and another with the Minnesota Vikings, caught 22 passes for 421 yards and five touchdowns in seven games last season for the Miners.

The team also announced the signing of two more players -- linebacker Lorenza Baker and wide receiver Reggie Perry, a quarterback and free safety at Southern Cal between 1990 and 1992.

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