Last week, Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Justin Cox was charged with domestic assault and here is a partial list of those adversely affected by his actions: first and foremost, the woman he assaulted. The community of Regina. The Canadian Football League. Even Cox himself.
Noticeably absent from that list? The Saskatchewan Roughriders – despite the fact that they were the ones who made the decision to bring Cox, who had two previous arrests for domestic violence, to Canada. And if the CFL wants to get serious about dealing with the issue then they need to make the teams at least partially accountable.
Cox was charged with assault causing bodily harm “as the result of investigation into an allegation of intimate partner violence” according to Regina police, who say a 23-year-old woman sustained injuries consistent with a physical assault on April 16. The Riders released him the same day the charges were laid and CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said in a statement he will block any attempt by a CFL team to sign Cox.
In other words, Cox’s football career is essentially over. And while it’s impossible to have much by the way of sympathy for the man given the circumstances, there’s little question his life has been altered by these events and not for the better.
The league doesn’t look particularly good, either. In August of 2015, Orridge announced a violence against woman policy that, among other things, included this line: “We will always err on the side of safety, respect for the sanctity of human life, and every person’s inherent right to security from harm.”
And yet the Riders were permitted to sign Cox, who was charged with two domestic violence incidents within a year, with little by way the way of accountability.
There were plenty of warning signs. While a senior at Mississippi State, Cox was arrested in January 2014 after an incident involving his then-girlfriend and charged with burglary and aggravated domestic violence. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of trespassing and was fined $600. The domestic violence charge was dismissed at the victim’s request. Then in July 2015, while a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, he was charged with burglary, aggravated domestic assault and trespassing in Mississippi. The team released him the following day.
Nonetheless, the Riders signed Cox in May of 2016 and he played in 15 games last season season while being named the team’s Most Outstanding Rookie. In December, the club rewarded him to a two-year contract extension.
Riders general manager and head coach Chris Jones was asked about Cox’s background last July when reports surfaced that the team was interested in former NFL linebacker Greg Hardy, another player with a history of domestic abuse.
“Absolutely we look at it,” Jones told the CBC. “I have known some people who have known Justin Cox since high school and had a lot of thorough investigation done on his background.”
The reality is the Riders signed Cox because they thought he was a good football player and didn’t care one bit about his past. And why would they? There’s no consequences for the team or its leadership for being wrong.
The fix is easy enough: impose a football-related penalty on teams whose players commit violent criminal acts – particularly those with a previous history of doing so.
The system could work something like this: if a team signs a player with a previous arrest or conviction for a violent offence and that player is arrested for a violent offence while in Canada, the team loses a first-round draft pick.
While a true zero-tolerance policy that would keep accused domestic abusers out of the CFL entirely has its merits, the league has often been bastion of those in need of second chances, whatever the reason. By imposing a football-related penalty, decision-makers would be forced to more carefully weigh the safety concerns and they might also be inclined to offer players who pose a potential risk the education and support they need to change their behaviour.
Developing a comprehensive domestic violence policy is challenging in part because there’s no consensus on what’s fair and effective – even banning abusers can have the unintended consequence of imposing an additional economic or emotional hardship on victims. But there’s little question that the ultimate gatekeepers – general managers around the league – have yet to be held accountable for their decisions if and when they go wrong.