McLeod Bethel-Thompson ruling makes mockery of CFL’s year-long COVID protocol

Photo courtesy: Ryan McCullough/Hamilton Tiger-Cats

The CFL was handed a golden opportunity to put their words into action on Friday and, in the least surprising outcome imaginable, they absolutely biffed it.

When it was announced that Argos’ starting QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson was sent home from practice on Friday due to breaking COVID-19 protocol, it sent a shockwave throughout the CFL community. Just days before a win-or-go-home East Final, we found out that the starting quarterback from one of the teams wouldn’t be eligible to play after he attended the Toronto Raptors game the night before.

The CFL put rules in place at the start of the season to try and ensure as little disruption to the season as possible. Given that few players tested positive and there was really only one massive outbreak causing the rescheduling of games, I would say the league did a pretty good job.

One of those rules prohibited tier one personnel (the category players fall under) from attending large gatherings, which a sporting event like a Raptors game would qualify as. If a player was caught to be in breach of these protocols they would have to quarantine for four days before being allowed to rejoin the team. Bethel-Thompson went to a game on Thursday night meaning the earliest he would allowed to return would be Tuesday. The Argos play Sunday. Uh-oh.

For a few hours this became the story in Canadian sports. We saw tweets from Ticats’ receiver Brandon Banks sharing that he asked the CFL for permission to attend a Raptors game earlier this year and was denied. Redblacks’ receiver Kenny Stafford replied to Banks stating he was forced to miss a game due to breaking protocol.

Ticats’ defensive end Ja’Gared Davis was forced to miss a Week 4 game against the Montreal Alouettes for, as head coach Orlondo Steinauer put it at the time, “knowingly or not” violating a league health and safety protocol. No one cried foul about either of those players missing time because most recognized that players needed to follow the rules in order to ensure an already shaky season went off with as few hitches as possible.

That was until Friday, when the league once again showed that there are rules for everyone else and rules for the Argos.

Conspiracy theories have abounded for as long as I can remember that the league office does everything it can to help the Argos become relevant in Toronto, the massive swindle that was the Ricky Ray trade ahead of the 2012 season — a season in which Toronto would be hosting the 100th Grey Cup, I might add — being chief among them. I don’t buy into those theories, but rulings in favour of the team paint a picture of a league that allows the Argos to operate under a separate set of guidelines.

For nearly 15 years the CFL has had a salary cap, or salary management system, in place. We have seen a few teams violate the cap, with the Riders, Ticats and Alouettes all paying fines or been stripped of draft picks for violating the cap in previous years. In 2019, one team went over the cap. That team was the Toronto Argonauts. Their punishment for violating the cap? Nothing.

Back in 2016, the Argos jumped the queue on Grey Cup hosting to help ensure the sale of the team from the late David Braley to Bell Canada and Larry Tanenbaum. It was a rumoured conditions of the sale was that Toronto would immediately get to host the Grey Cup, helping the new owners recoup some of their investment in quick fashion. Toronto had just hosted the game four years prior, and shouldn’t have been in line for another hosting opportunity for at least a few years.

So whether you buy into conspiracies or not, it is clear the league treats the Argos with kid gloves, letting them get away with violations they don’t allow other teams to get away with or giving them preferential treatment all in the name of reviving them from the dead in the crowded Toronto entertainment market.

The commissioner swore up and down that protocol would be followed and violations would be dealt with harshly. When that was a member of the Edmonton Elks, the league barred him from playing this season. When it was a member of the Toronto Argonauts — multiple members, as four other players were with Bethel-Thompson at the Raptors game — they amended the rules on the spot.

The league is claiming that the changes aren’t political or aren’t to ensure that a few prominent players miss an important game, and that they are just following the recommendations of their own medical committee. While that is nice to say, and some will probably swallow it whole, it isn’t backed up by the facts.

Was the rule excessive? Probably. Should it have been changed? Probably. Does that mean days before one of the biggest game of the year that the league should have reversed course without any notice? Absolutely not.

No amount of bellowing from anyone, whether you’re a reporter from Calgary, a season-ticket holder from Scarborough, or a glad-handing company yes-man will make this ruling correct. No amount of letting Pinball take the blame will absolve the league of completely blowing this. We saw them take a hardline stance earlier in the year, and much like a ref swallowing his whistle because it’s late in a playoff game, the league has altered the competitive balance despite ruling another way the entire season.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Dexter McCoil, Charleston Hughes, Llevi Noel and Jeff Richards should not be suiting up on Sunday. But because the CFL can’t help but screw even the easiest things up — I mean, what’s simpler than following the rules you set out? — we will likely see all five players in uniform on Sunday.

The decision casts a dark cloud over the East Final, will likely lead to renewed questions during Grey Cup week, and makes the league look weak where they maintained they would always stay strong. It’s another public embarrassment for a league that desperately needs to not be viewed as joke.

But the league’s ruling is just that, a joke. And not a funny one.

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.