The CFL took the coward’s way out on the John Murphy decision

Photo courtesy: Justin Dunk

When news broke that Toronto Argonauts vice-president of player personnel John Murphy was ‘no longer an employee’ of the team, nobody in the CFL community could say they were surprised.

After the startling events that transpired in the aftermath of the East Final, where players were caught on camera entering the stands and video allegedly showed Murphy involved in a physical and verbal altercation with a Ticats fan, this was the only way the situation was going to end. After Murphy was indefinitely suspended by the league, there was simply no way that MLSE would keep him around.

So Murphy is now out of the CFL for the foreseeable future, perhaps never to return. Problem solved. Crisis averted. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s hands are now cleansed of impurities and fit to handle the Grey Cup on Sunday.

Nothing could be further from reality.

While the Murphy investigation ultimately ended in the way that it had to, the execution of that decision by the league and the Argos should be viewed as an utter embarrassment lacking in all moral courage.

In true football fashion, to understand why you have to watch the tape.

The abhorrent behaviour by a minority of Hamilton fans created a toxic, and perhaps even dangerous, environment for the Argos on their way to the locker room after the loss. After a fan jumped the barricade aggressively and had to be pinned by security, you can forgive Murphy and his ensuing agitation. Regardless, his decision to approach the barricade himself and slap a heckler was inexcusable. What the video and audio appears to catch him uttering during the altercation was completely indefensible.

The plausible deniability that comes with a shaky cellphone video of this nature certainly coloured the events that followed, but those that have heard the audio have little doubt in what they believe exited Murphy’s mouth. The allegation, which likely proved more fatal to his career prospects than any punch thrown, is that he shouted a homophobic slur — you likely know the one — at his would-be combatant.

And, at least on paper, the CFL, great champions of LGBTQ rights in sport, didn’t seem to care.

Sure, the league and MLSE meted out a punishment, perhaps even a capital one, and there are some who will say that the woke, cancel culture mob — whatever that is — won out. Yet it happened as the CFL barely paid lip service to the issue at hand.

When Murphy was slapped with an indefinite suspension, the league simply said in a statement that their investigation was continuing. MLSE will not even address his firing until the Monday after Grey Cup, respecting the league’s media black out. The only meaningful comment made by the league was a 20 second soundbite from Randy Ambrosie during his State of the League address, before he quickly pivoted to queries on the unequal application of the CFL’s COVID protocols.

“We can’t have that. We have to live in a world and be a beacon for tolerance, not intolerance, and we can’t stand that type of thing happening,” Ambrosie said, never actually saying what thing he was referring to. “We learn from those things and we deal with that business in the family and we will.”

Somehow in the week after one of the most powerful football men in the country was accused of using a homophobic slur, no official acknowledgement of the word even being said and no specific mention of gay rights or the harm caused to the LGBTQ community has been uttered by anyone close to the situation.

If you actually want to be a beacon for tolerance, keeping it in the family isn’t good enough.

The CFL has decided to pass the buck until they are out of the spotlight and their annual Grey Cup celebration has made a triumphant return, willing to only address the unsightly issue once the eyeballs have turned away. It is the coward’s way out and the league knows it.

Let me preface this by saying that I do not know John Murphy, I can’t and won’t speak to his broader character; human beings are all complex and flawed creatures. Yet, his choice of wording in a moment of anger exposed at the very minimum an uncomfortable familiarity with language and a way of thinking that should have no place in our society.

He wielded that word as a weapon, equal to or greater than his hands, and he delivered it with intent. While the bruise from a slap to the face heals quickly, the deep cut of hearing a man in a position of power in sport say the hateful word that everyone fears is uttered behind closed doors out loud and in public will have a lasting effect on the comfort level of members of the LGBTQ community to be themselves as fans, players and employees of the CFL.

Murphy broke a sacred trust of leadership in using that derogatory language and he has paid a price, but only a sadist would take solace in a man losing their job. Punitive justice has never healed a wound and that is why the approach the CFL took was so crucial.

In an ideal world, Murphy himself would have taken responsibility and publicly apologized for his action with some sort of genuine act of contrition. At the bare minimum, the league needed to publicly condemn the use of homophobic language and reaffirm its commitment to LGBTQ inclusion, whether or not it could legally name Murphy in the process. Instead, neither happened and the silence was deafening.

I’m certain that when the CFL lifts their media blackout on Monday, the Argos will address some of those very points in their official statement on Murphy and perhaps the league will follow suite — but it will all be too little, too late.

By choosing to keep this controversy as quiet as possible during Grey Cup week, the CFL has sent a clear message to the LGBTQ community that they are not worth the inconvenience. That when the lights were brightest and all the cameras were pointed at Randy Ambrosie, they weren’t worth a hard stance and a clear message of support. That the existence of homophobia in the league is too unsightly an issue to actually offer solutions in prime time.

You see, axing Murphy without a word was the easy way out. It looks fine for PR purposes, it will get the hounds off your back, and it limits the blow back, but it is nothing more than performative action.

Leaders with courage address things head on. They take responsibility and make bold decisions when eyes are on them. They do more than punish, they propose solutions and act on them. They make everyone feel welcome and they demonstrate empathy.

They don’t hide in the shadows, they don’t pass the buck and they are never silent.

Unfortunately in this situation, the CFL were cowards.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.