‘I’m the boss’: Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons takes blame for Toronto Argos mishandling harassment claims

Photo courtesy: Ted Pritchard/Rattleboxmultimedia.ca/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Toronto Argonauts general manager Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons answered questions about his star quarterback’s suspension minutes after Chad Kelly ran off the turf and into the locker room at Alumni Stadium in Guelph.

“[The league] laid a penalty which I think surprised people and if we’re going to build this to the place where Chad can get back, part of that is he needs to be with the team. I’m not approving it or disapproving it, I’m following the rules we were given,” Clemons said.

“He was there but did not practice. He’s allowed to be out here, the league has given him that permission and we will follow the league’s direction. We will continue to try to be consistent with that because they went through a long investigation.”

The CFL punished Kelly after an independent third-party investigation commissioned in February produced an 87-page report which found the reigning Most Outstanding Player “unequivocally violated” the three-down league’s gender-based violence policy. That report will not be made public due to privacy laws.

The CFL issued a minimum nine-game suspension for Kelly following workplace sexual harassment allegations made against the QB in a civil lawsuit filed by a former strength and conditioning coach. According to the league, it is the Argos’ decision whether the 30-year-old QB attends practices, meetings and team activities while suspended.

“The league has laid out instructions for him, he will follow those instructions that he has been given and he will have to. Even with the suspension, it’s not nine weeks and you go back to play,” Clemons said.

“It’s nine weeks, we evaluate where you are and how you have complied with the things that we’ve asked you to do and then at that point, he would be eligible again. The league has had very strict rules when they are governing this and I think it is a reflection of a responsible investigation.”

To be reinstated by the league, Kelly has to attend mandatory counselling sessions conducted by a gender-based violence expert and undergo assessments by an independent evaluator. If he doesn’t complete those sessions and assessments to the league’s satisfaction, discipline could be modified.

“The penalty handed down by the league was a very significant and challenging commitment on their part. I think they were diligent in their investigation,” Clemons said.

“When you go through a three-month investigation, you’ve covered things. They gave him a very severe, very harsh penalty — it may be unprecedented, I’m not sure. Consistent with that, we want to make sure that we continue to move along that line and Chad has to be willing to do that as well.”

There was a banner featuring Kelly in uniform flapping in the wind as Clemons made his first public comments since the league’s punishment was given. He affirmed the organization’s commitment to adhering to the letter of the CFL’s rulings and dismissed questions around the optics of allowing the quarterback to be on the field as “unfair.”

In a statement provided to 3DownNation following the ruling, Kelly’s agent, Chris Lambiris, said that his camp was “surprised” by the league’s minimum nine-game suspension and is “looking into” the appeal process. If one is filed, the quarterback would be allowed to return to the field as a full participant pending an arbitrator’s decision.

While the Argonauts could prevent such an occurrence with an internal team suspension, Clemons refused to commit to a course of action if an appeal is filed.

“We’d have to make the decision at that time because if something like that occurred, it means that we’ve got new developments,” he said. “It would make sense to address that at an appropriate time.”

A former team employee filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, Feb. 21 with the Ontario Superior Court, alleging that Kelly “repeatedly sought to initiate romantic connections” with her throughout the 2022 and 2023 seasons. She claimed Kelly escalated his harassment on Sunday, Nov. 5 when he publicly accused her of being romantically involved with another player, an incident she alleges led to the team not renewing her contract.

None of the allegations against Kelly or the Argonauts have been tested in court.

Kelly filed his defence in the lawsuit and denied making “any romantic or sexual overtures” towards the plaintiff, including workplace sexual harassment. He stated she “advanced these spurious claims against him purely to draw the attention of the media to what was otherwise a very routine termination situation.”

In the team’s defence filing, the Argonauts claimed “no knowledge” of any behaviour by Kelly that violated the CFL’s gender-based violence policy or breached the Ontario Human Rights Code. The team believes its conduct with the plaintiff was “all times fair, reasonable, lawful and undertaken in good faith.”

In its statement on Kelly’s suspension, the league indicated it would review findings regarding the Argos’ conduct directly with the team. Clemons said he has not seen the full investigator’s report or the executive summary shared with MLSE’s lawyers, but revealed the team had been given one official recommendation regarding thorough documentation.

“I don’t want to be flippant here but I don’t know how many workplaces you’ve been in where it doesn’t have an issue. These are two employees who had an issue and that happens. When it happens, we have to figure out how to justly legislate this process and that’s what the league has done. If that changes, we’ll change,” Clemons said.

“We’ve got a set of rules from the league itself. We will go beyond that though because good enough is not good enough. It’s not good enough just to comply with the league rules. If we’re going to take this seriously, we need to continue to learn and grow in this area and that’s for me too.”

Clemons reiterated his claims that he was not made aware of any harassment allegations until the lawsuit had been filed, but took personal responsibility for any organizational failure. While he pointed out the Argonauts’ previous track record with multiple female employees, the GM vowed to be better and called for a review of the team’s processes to prevent similar situations in the future.

“Our goal is to make sure that it doesn’t. In this situation, this is no explanation for what has taken place. 99 percent is not good enough, you’ve got to be 100 percent. That’s what our goal is — emphatically. We want to do our very best in this area. We want to be committed that this is a safe and healthy environment for everybody,” Clemons insisted.

“If you want to blame someone, I’m the guy. If that’s anybody, that’s me because I’m the boss. I wasn’t aware of the allegations until they came out. The blame game is no good. Let’s go back and look at processes and see if our process could have been better. For that, we’re going to need outside help because trying to examine that inside, I don’t think that we’re qualified to do so.”

Toronto’s GM refused to comment on his team’s quarterback situation entering the 2024 season, stating Cameron Dukes’ temporary starter status was “probably the last thing” on his mind. He did not want to project the team’s QB position going forward, avoiding speculation regarding when Kelly’s possible return could occur.

“I’ve got no expectations at this point,” Clemons said. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done on everybody’s behalf, it’s not just Chad. He’s got work to do but we’ve got work to do as well, so we want to look inward before we look outward.”

Despite that uncertainty, the Canadian Football Hall of Famer would not comment when asked if Kelly’s release from the Argos would be considered an option, insisting the focus should be on growth for both the player and the organization.

Pressed on what he would say to fans who may refuse to buy tickets while the controversial quarterback remains the face of the franchise, Clemons said he “deeply appreciates” the support.

“We are going to continue to find a path. I love people and I’m not ashamed to say that. I do believe that people deserve opportunity. If we get to a point where we see that is otherwise in this situation, we will make that change at that time,” Clemons said.

“If I could do it differently, I’d ask a whole bunch more questions a lot earlier. We have what we believe to be a tremendous culture that has cultivated people. People come and say the air here is different. This is a situation that happened between two people and situations do happen between two people, I don’t know all the details.”

The Argonauts open the regular season, with or without Kelly, on Sunday, June 9 when the team hosts the B.C. Lions at BMO Field.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.