Redblacks’ Tavai escaping suspension shows CFL doesn’t care about player safety

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

“We should embrace a shared responsibility to do all we can to punish and deter any play that crosses the line.”

Those are the words CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie chose to use when attacking the CFLPA for electing to defend Simoni Lawrence after he was given a two-game suspension for his head hit on Zach Collaros.

The condemnation of the hit was nearly universal and the hope was — at least in this corner — that further “reckless and dangerous” hits would also be dealt with in a similarly severe manner.

Well, the league flubbed their first chance to do that, post-Lawrence, and this past week gave the CFL office maybe its best chance since Week 1 to show that they will walk what they talk and they flubbed it again.

Ottawa Redblacks defensive lineman J.R. Tavai was fined on Wednesday for his helmet-to-helmet shot on Montreal Alouettes QB Vernon Adams Jr. The hit knocked Adams from the game and onto the the injured list, as Adams will miss Montreal’s Week 9 game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. His status going forward, as he deals with the aftereffects of a concussion, is unknown.

How that hit, which was clearly to the head and neck area and was just as dangerous as the hit levelled by Lawrence, escaped a suspension is mystifying. It is not the first incident, post-Lawrence, where the league has failed to uphold its own new standard for dangerous play.

Saskatchewan’s Makana Henry has been flying around delivering late hits ever since — who can forget his shoulder block into Dominique Davis back in Week 2, a hit that should have warranted a suspension, quite frankly — and has only been fined for his infractions.

The same can be said of Edmonton’s Nick Usher, who ear-holed Mike Reilly back at the beginning of the season, and was also just fined.

No hits delivered after Lawrence’s have been met with a suspension, which is curious. Not all hits are created equal, and Lawrence’s hit was one of the worst we have seen this season, but the standard shouldn’t be “was this hit as bad as Lawrence’s on Collaros?” and each hit should be judged on its own merit. Lawrence’s hit was bad, but so were Henry’s and Usher’s and, especially, Tavai’s.

I don’t believe the injury suffered by the playing receiving the hit should be taken into consideration. Just because Collaros and Adams got concessions and Reilly didn’t, doesn’t make Usher’s hit any better. The outcome shouldn’t dictate the punishment.

But if we are to judge these hits solely on their impact, there is no way anyone can argue that Tavai’s hit on Adams wasn’t just as dirty, just as unnecessary and just as dangerous as the one Lawrence laid on Collaros. If Lawrence sat for two games, which he did following a lengthy appeal that was upheld by an arbitrator, then I don’t see why Tavai shouldn’t have received the same punishment.

The league said they were taking a hardline stance on dangerous hits to start the season and were applauded for it by most fans. Now, it seems, they have softened their stance and it is time for the same fans who were apoplectic in Week 1 to direct that anger towards the league for backtracking.

Since the first night of the season we have not seen dangerous and unnecessary hits subside in any meaningful way. There have been almost as many potentially suspendible hits as there have been games played this season, which has given the league numerous instances where they could further put their foot down, but they haven’t.

It is disappointing to see the league do an about-face so quickly. The CFL has the chance to be at the forefront of player safety, like they have been at the forefront for a lot of innovations in pro sports, but they went back to the tried-and-true method of doing the bare minimum.

If I was a Ticats fan, and I am, I would be furious that a player on my team, one that had never even been so much as fined for his on-field behaviour, was forced to sit two games for a hit that a couple months later is now only worthy of a fine.

And there is another thing about this whole mess. While Lawrence had a clean record prior to his hit on Collaros, Tavai did not. Just last year, Tavai hit the now-retired Travis Lulay square on the chin in a game between the Redblacks and B.C. Lions. The hit, incredibly, did not receive a penalty, but the league did fine Tavai afterwards.

One player, with zero history of on-field trouble, gets suspended for two games; the other, a player who less than 12 months ago was fined for a disgusting headshot, was simply fined once again.

Tavai’s hit gave the league a golden opportunity to show that the Lawrence punishment wasn’t just posturing. That they weren’t just looking for a poster boy for their supposed new stance on player safety. But after watching Tavai take a similarly dirty shot at Adams Jr. and receive just a fine, it is hard not to think the league just wanted to make an example of the first person to deliver a dangerous, dirty hit.

“We all need to walk all of this talk in a meaningful way… by sending and supporting a clear and unequivocal message on player safety.”

The message from the league office is now louder and clearer than ever, but probably not in the way they intended.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.