The Simoni Lawrence vitriol shows coded language has no place in sports

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

The talk of the CFL the entire season has been Simoni Lawrence.

Every time he does anything, he makes headlines. He’s been targeted by the media and fans, but now things have crossed the line thanks to none other than former voice of the Riders, Rod Pedersen.

Pedersen, who now has his own independent internet radio show, went on said show Tuesday and did what most people in Saskatchewan have done since mid-July: take a couple shots at Simoni Lawrence.

The laziest of the two was when he compared the punishment handed down by the NFL to Oakland Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict to the – in his opinion – too lenient punishment handed down to Lawrence by the CFL. Burfict was suspended by the NFL for the remainder of the 2019 season for his cheap shot on Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle last Sunday.

The reason the comparison is lazy is because it is the easiest comparison to make, especially if you strip it of all the context. But if you did even the bare minimum amount of research you would see that Burfict has a far deeper history of these types of things than Lawrence does.

Lawrence, as famously tweeted by Ticats CEO Scott Mitchell, had never even been fined prior to his two-game suspension for concussing former Riders quarterback Zach Collaros. Since then, Lawrence has been fined twice for his on-field behaviour, no doubt because he is under a microscope and any transgression of his will be blown up into something bigger than it is.

That brings us to Burfict and Pedersen’s lazy comparison.

It is Burfict’s third suspension for dangerous hits. The first came in a playoff game in January 2016 when Burfict, then with the Cincinnati Bengals, scrambled the brains of former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. Burfict was suspended three games for the infraction.

The next suspension was handed out in August 2017, after Burfict delivered a devastating cheap shot to Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman. Burfict was initially suspended five games, but appealed it down to three.

The third was last Sunday when Burfict levelled Doyle.

And that doesn’t include the fines — Burfict has 10 for head hits or general dangerous play.

Do we all see the difference now? A guy who, until this year, had never even been so much as warned about his on-field behaviour versus a guy who has been in trouble with his league since his second year in the pros (Burfict’s first fine came in 2013; he was signed by the Bengals after going undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft.)

So if you, like Pedersen, are going to make that comparison, save it.

But it leads into the worst of the two terrible things Pedersen said and that was when he said Simoni Lawrence is a “thug-ish type” of player.

Coded language has a long history in sports, whether it’s calling undersized white players scrappy (think Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Dustin Pedroia) or how a white dude is a “hard worker” and a black athlete is “naturally gifted.”

Or like when Tom Brady gets labelled as passionate when cameras catch him screaming at his offensive coordinator, but Dez Bryant was called immature and a malcontent when caught doing the same thing.

And it’s why Pedersen calling Lawrence a thug goes beyond team loyalties. This isn’t a Ticats-Riders thing or even a Pedersen-Lawrence thing; this is we as sports fans and commentators needing to excise these types of words from our lexicon.

Calling Lawrence a thug is emblematic of a larger problem, but it is especially problematic given the racial overtones of such a comment. “Thug” implies “criminal.” I would be willing to bet a lot of money that you would never hear someone like Pedersen call a white player a thug — a goon, maybe, but not a thug.

And isn’t it interesting that players in hockey whose only skill is being able to punch someone else really hard are called goons and not thugs? But I digress.

When given a chance to simply apologize for his comments and understand that he went too far, Pedersen doubled down. He talked about all the impressions the Tweet from the show got and refused to back down when other players, such as Jamaal Westerman, came to Lawrence’s defence.

Maybe Pedersen is ignorant of the connotation of “thug.” If he is, I suggest he simply not use it.

We are taught — or at least I was taught — that if you don’t know what a word means or what the history of a word is then you shouldn’t use it. If Pedersen doesn’t know how the term thug has a racist meaning when it comes to black athletes, then he should probably refrain from using it.

Hot takes are the name of the game right now — would anyone know who Skip Bayless was if he didn’t spend years making a name for himself by attacking guys like Troy Aikman and LeBron James? — and I myself have been criticized for maybe not always writing or saying the smartest thing. But all we can ask of people is to grow and learn — and most importantly listen.

When black athletes tell us that something is unacceptable, we should listen to them. We shouldn’t plug our ears and go on our merry way thinking that standing our ground is somehow a shot across the bow of PC culture or SJWs or whatever other silly, non-existent boogie man you’ve created in your mind.

You do not have to like Simoni Lawrence the player — you can even think he’s deserving of harsher punishments for the things he has done on the field. Those opinions are fine.

But what is not fine is using what many athletes feel is racial coded language to attack him.

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.