Arthur: Attempting to hire Art Briles a stain on the Ticats franchise

All day the Canadian Football League was locked in radio silence, for good reason. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats had hired Art Briles, the disgraced former coach at Baylor University who was fired after dozens of allegations of rape, harassment, stalking and assault by his players surfaced despite his best efforts. He had become radioactive in American football; Hamilton, exhibiting truly heroic tone-deaf idiocy, decided he would be welcome here.

It was a sudden, incredible crisis. Monday night the Ticats also ran their first of two Huddles & Heels women’s football clinics, presented by Barry’s Jewellers. They’ve done it for a few years now: female fans get to drink wine, learn about football, run drills on the field. By mid-afternoon, Barry’s Jewellers had already reacted to the Briles hiring with strong disapproval, and announced a plan to donate an undisclosed portion of their sales for the next two months to the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton. Now here’s how you throw a spiral, ladies!

The CFL wasn’t sure it could block a coaching appointment; the league can and has refused to register player contracts, but two sources familiar with the constitution told the Star the only way commissioner Randy Ambrosie could block the hire would be if he decided the move brought he league into disrepute. And even then, the CFL wasn’t sure it would hold weight.

So they went with old-fashioned diplomacy instead, arguing and leaning and persuading into the evening, and saved the team from themselves. The statement announcing Briles wasn’t coming arrived at 9:23 p.m.

It wasn’t that Hamilton’s front office couldn’t hire Briles. It was that they shouldn’t. Baylor University didn’t fire him until it was clear that his players had committed dozens and perhaps hundreds of crimes on his watch, up to and including rape. He, in turn, didn’t drop his libel and slander lawsuit threats until it was revealed that he knew about many of the allegations and preferred to keep them quiet. Ticats president Scott Mitchell, in an interview that couldn’t have been more of a train wreck if it had done a nosedive off a trestle bridge, said that Briles had been exonerated by the university. The university that fired Briles and contradicted his version of events, over and over? That one?

“The more we contemplated it, deliberated over it — and obviously I spoke to (owner) Bob Young about it as well — we just thought it was a very serious situation,” Mitchell told Drew Edwards of “But we also felt that after talking to dozens of people, people we trust, people we admire, that Art Briles a is a good man that was caught in a very bad situation.”

Mitchell also said, “That doesn’t excuse what went on there by any stretch or the horrific experiences that some young women went through. But as an organization we have to decide whether we’re going to give people a second chance and judge them for their own character, morality, and ethics. I can tell you there wasn’t one single person that we spoke to who knows Art Briles that didn’t think he deserved an opportunity to work in football.”

It was clearly a disgrace to everyone but the team. The Dallas Morning News reported in May that Baylor was investigating about 125 reports of either rape, assault, stalking or harassment by football players between 2011-16. Baylor’s then-Title IX coordinator, Patty Crawford, told the newspaper that the actual number could be higher. There was at least one five-player gang rape the university claimed Briles knew about, and didn’t report. We will never know how many women didn’t come forward.

Briles was far from the only bad actor, but he was in charge. How did Young sign off on this without realizing it would stain the organization? Kent Austin? Mitchell? Maybe this was about the hope of landing former NFL quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, who played for Briles at Baylor, or Johnny Manziel, who reportedly liked Briles while being recruited. But Briles at Baylor was a reminder of how winning excuses deep moral failures. This would have been a tinpot echo of the same thing, by an 0-8 team.

“Even dating back 20 years ago with my gang rape and covering it up, we’ve seen this happen,” said Brenda Tracy, an anti-sexual assault activist, rape survivor, and member of the NCAA’s Committee to Combat Sexual Violence. “It’s obviously one of the most egregious case that we know of, but there’s been a history of football programs and colleges placing winning over human life. The hiring of Art Briles, it’s symbolic that it doesn’t matter. That what happened at Baylor doesn’t matter, that what happened to all these survivors over all of these years doesn’t matter. That winning matters. That football matters.”

The Ticats still have to wear that they thought it was a good idea to bring in a man who presided over a campus that became a playground for sexual predators. But at least the league turned the ship around, late but in time: as Young tweeted, “Randy Ambrosie saves the Ticats from a major blunder today. Longer mea culpa coming tomorrow.”

The CFL has been good on social issues over the past few years: strong stands on domestic violence, partnership with You Can Play, the Diversity is Strength campaign that was fast-tracked after Charlottesville. This league can be as incompetent as any other, but it still knows that it really lives in its communities, Toronto perhaps excepted.

It shouldn’t have taken the backlash for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to remember that, but it did.