Until now, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ biggest mess in 2017 had been restricted to the field. You know all about that. This year’s winless version of the football club has been a thorough disaster.
But that’s just a game. Nobody’s life is ruined. Nobody’s dignity is violated.
Monday morning’s announcement that the team had hired a man who was once at the centre of a massive sexual assault scandal at Baylor University — amazingly, on the very day the Ticats were scheduled to host a football clinic for women — as an assistant coach is something else. It was about real life. And it was a massive blast of tone-deaf arrogance from a franchise that might have thought it would be engaging its base with a clever hire, but instead enraged it.
That they turned tail later in the evening and announced he wouldn’t be coming after all doesn’t really change much or make the team look better. In fact, it doesn’t help at all.
You’ve probably heard the background by now.
The Wall Street Journal has written that 17 women reported rape incidents involving 19 players during Briles’ tenure at Baylor. Four of these were said to be gang rapes. That figure might be low. A lawsuit claims a total of 52 rapes occurred while he was overseeing the program.
Throughout all this, the football program under his leadership didn’t report claims of rape to anyone outside the athletics department, according to a report by the school and an independent investigator.
To be clear, Briles was never criminally charged. His agent says he’s no longer mentioned in any lawsuits. But what happened at his school under his stewardship was repulsive. Numerous young women’s lives were affected in ways most of us can never contemplate.
When outrage erupted across North America in the hours after the hiring was announced, Ticats’ CEO Scott Mitchell described the new guy as “a good man that was caught in a very bad situation.” He also told The Spectator’s Drew Edwards that “some serious mistakes were made along the way, but we feel strongly that people deserve second chances.” And he called the background to the story “unfortunate.”
Even if some or all of that is true, it’s shocking how badly Mitchell et al whiffed here.
There are plenty of people working in high-level football today. A lot of them are really good at their jobs and could come in with a clean slate. Yet the boss and the others running this operation somehow came to believe this was the only person on the entire planet qualified to fix their offence. A man described as so toxic that the University of Houston actually put out a press release saying he wouldn’t even get an interview for its vacant job, presumably so the odour his legacy carries wouldn’t waft over that school.
That’s either a lack of awareness in how poorly this would be received here and elsewhere or hubris that it wouldn’t matter.
The fact that Mitchell says the front office had been thinking about this for weeks is even more shocking. This wasn’t a split-second decision that you could chalk up to a momentary lapse in judgment. They thought this through and still concluded it was a good idea.
How anyone in a business that relies on public support and goodwill could’ve possibly thought a man carrying this kind of baggage wouldn’t elicit this kind of response is a head-scratcher. For a league and a team trying to grow its base and attract new fans, bringing in someone who you know would antagonize so many people is baffling. It’s as if they were poking folks in the eye and then asking for their time and money.
As for second chances, if that was the theme here, surely it would have been mentioned in the press release. You know, something trumpeting how the Ticats were saints for helping a good guy when he’s down. While the release certainly cited Briles’ magnificent stats and football achievements, it made not so much as a single mention of the disturbing parts of his past.
No, this whole thing was a mess.
Losing games is one thing. The Ticats have shown themselves to be quite expert at that. This move on the other hand showed a unique level of we-know-best that was frankly, incongruent with the league’s otherwise-strong position on violence against women. Remember, it was just a few months ago that the league barred a player with a checkered past from signing a contract, despite being found not guilty of assault causing bodily harm related to an alleged incident of domestic violence.
“It is extremely contradictory,” says Lenore Lukasic-Foss, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton and Area. “And it’s not demonstrating integrity.”
The outrage that followed the news further demonstrated how significantly the organization must have misread the public mood. Or didn’t care. By Monday afternoon, Barry’s Jewellers — one of the team’s sponsors — had condemned the hire and urged a reversal. People on Twitter were calling for boycotts of other sponsors, the team and the league.
Then Monday shortly after 9 p.m., the league and team jointly announced the move was off. By this point though, it really didn’t matter. The damage was done. Even if they win every game the rest of the way, the Ticats have already lost far, far more.
A few years ago in the midst of the furious stadium debate it would’ve been hard to imagine that this franchise could’ve found a way to appear more divisive and anger more people. For that reason alone, congratulations might actually be in order this morning.
Because on the Monday before Labour Day, it remarkably achieved the impossible.