Argos' players, staff grow frustrated over work conditions

Matthew Scianitti
9/4/2014 11:55:55 AM
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The Toronto Argonauts are North America's oldest professional football franchise. But they're also homeless and nomadic - a description that isn't new for the team over the last few decades. With building time, pressure and ownership uncertainty, it's a challenge that members of the organization can no longer ignore.

The Argos are first in the East Division (albeit with a 3-7 record), but the team has used three different practice facilities across the Greater Toronto Area over the last month. They've been at York University, the Hershey Centre in Mississauga and the Rogers Centre for meetings and locker rooms, while occasionally practising on different high school and community fields in North and West Toronto.

Several veteran players and team staffers - who wish to remain anonymous - approached TSN in recent weeks to their concern and frustration over the negative affect the Argos' constant changing of facilities and cloudy ownership situation continue to have on the club. Players have also sent in photos of equipment stuffed in narrow hallways and around players trying to get treatment for injuries from the training staff.

"This whole thing is a joke," one veteran player told TSN.

While the team moved into a new, permanent facility at Downsview Park in North Toronto (shared with Toronto FC) last week, there was still unhappiness with the situation.

"Does it affect how we prepare (for games)? Yes," said another veteran player. "Do I think about it while I'm on the field, between plays? No. But it's always in the back of your mind."

The situation seems comparable to two years ago when a fire destroyed the Argonauts' facility at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus and the team was forced to work in the school's classrooms along with neighbouring high school football fields. And that team went on to win the 100th Grey Cup that season.

"In 2012, we used our facilities - or lack of - as motivation to win a championship," added another player. "Now? Many of us are tired and frustrated. But what can we do?"

While the players say that trying to work around unpredictable locations and schedules without violating the 4 1/2 hour workday rule mandated in the league's collective bargaining agreement is tough, the CFL Players' Association told TSN that no complaints have been filed over excessive workdays or unfit working conditions.

The reason players have chosen to stay quiet appears to be the efforts of head coach Scott Milanovich and his coaching staff to maintain calm inside the locker rooms. And those efforts have not gone unnoticed. Players say that Milanovich never complains about the team's situation, but simply brings a detailed plan to every practice and demands that his players perform.

"I can't imagine what Coach Scott is going through," said defensive back Jalil Carter prior to the Labour Day Classic in Hamilton. "He takes all that frustration onto himself. And we never see it. He just allows us to compete."

Milanovich declined to comment on Toronto's practice facilities or ownership situation. "I'm just trying to prepare our guys to win the East," he said flatly. "Our goal is to be one game away from the Grey Cup. That's it."

But not knowing the franchise's future is a disheartening distraction for the players. And off the field, team staffers are concerned about diminishing budgets and a diminishing workforce. The team has been without a head of ticket sales and corporate partnerships this season. And after the Argonauts' director of marketing resigned in August, team staff have said the team will effectively have no marketing department later this month.

By comparison, other CFL franchises have no fewer than two marketing directors - and in some cases, as many as six full-time marketing staffers.

On top of that, the team's lease at the Rogers Centre expires Dec. 31, 2017 and the Argos have not yet drawn more than 20,000 spectators to any of their four home games.

"I have no idea what is going on (with the ownership situation)," a veteran said. "I don't know who to blame."

One prominent Argo who's considering a contract extension says that while his connection with the current roster and coaching staff is important, he can't help but factor in the stress caused by the unpredictability with their practice facilities.

And that dithering has already hurt the Argos. CFL sources tell TSN that Toronto made a contract offer to re-sign free agent defensive back Pat Watkins in the off-season, but Eskimos head coach (and former Argos defensive coordinator) Chris Jones brought the CFL All-Star to Edmonton to show him the team's state-of-the-art fieldhouse near Commonwealth Stadium. After that, Watkins never returned the Argos' calls.

Jones also made sure that his new acquisition shared his Toronto experience with his new teammates.
"Coach Jones brought Pat and I up (in front of the team) to tell everyone where we had come from and the challenges we faced (with facilities) in Toronto," said Eskimos offensive lineman and former Argo Tony Washington. "He wanted the team to be thankful for what we have."

Even after the Argos' move to Downsview Park, it's still difficult for some in the organization to feel pleased. After the first week at the new facility, a team staffer told TSN that the new challenge is managing the Argos' work schedule - particularly washing equipment - around that of Toronto FC.

In July, the team announced a partnership with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to build training facilities. Some in the organization call them "modular buildings" - structures built off-site and then set down in Downsview Park. For others, they're simply called "trailers."

Nevertheless, Milanovich and his coaching staff are maintaining a constructive outlook, focused on holding their lead in the East Division. But with mounting questions about David Braley's ownership of the team and how the CFL should handle the situation, Toronto players and staff are wondering aloud how the situation will continue to affect their performance.

"Sometimes you have to remind yourself: This is a professional franchise," said one player. "It's frustrating."

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