Overall, Twitter's been a great development for the CFL; it's allowed many fans to interact with players and get a better sense of who they are, and it's given players the chance to speak directly to their fans in a way that was more difficult previously. However, when you give people a forum to express themselves, some are going to do so in ways others don't like. We've seen this before, and it's again proven the case with some of the Twitter comments made by B.C. Lions' defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell and Hamilton Tiger-Cats' running back Avon Cobourne in the wake of Tuesday night's American presidential debate. Here are screenshots of some of their controversy-stirring comments, and of some of their responses to others' criticisms. First, Mitchell (interactive Storify version here): Khalif Mitchell stirred controversy with tweets Wednesday. And now, Cobourne (Drew Edwards did a nice job of spotting these and providing some context; also, you can find my interactive Storify version of these here):Avon Cobourne sent out some controversial tweets Tuesday and Wednesday.
First, there are some important distinctions between the comments made by Mitchell and Cobourne. Mitchell used a term many consider racist and derogatory, and even he realized that, hence his apology. Whether his apology is sincere or enough is a different subject, but it's clear that he did something to bring the league into wide disrepute (heck, B.C. premier Christy Clark weighed in on the debate, criticizing Mitchell during a radio interview Wednesday), and that's why he's already been fined by the league.
The CFL's smart to discipline him here; the league's social media policy's reasonably solid, essentially saying that tweets are equivalent to public comments and players can be fined for those that bring the league into disrepute, including those that "condone harassment, discrimination or violence, are obscene or sexually explicit, or divulge proprietary information." Mitchell isn't necessarily condoning harassment or discrimination, but he used a term widely considered to be discriminatory, and he hurt the CFL's reputation in the process. Punishing him for that isn't muting his voice or preventing him from speaking out; in fact, if he'd merely spread his theories about Obama and Romney both hiding money in China by saying "with the Chinese", it's doubtful anyone would care.
By contrast, Cobourne hasn't necessarily done anything wrong. He didn't use any particularly objectionable terms, and his position doesn't seem all that different from that of a candidate running for President. He's got an opinion on a hot-button issue, and he's perfectly free to share it. However, CFL fans who disagree with him are just as free to say so, and many already have.
From this perspective, while Cobourne's tweets aren't necessarily crossing the line, they're a little disappointing. Sexual orientation and tolerance of gay athletes is becoming one of the biggest issues in sports, and some of us are happy to see the open and accepting approaches taken by various athletes and organizations (including Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo and You Can Play). It would be nice to see some of that make its way to the CFL, especially given the league's history of accepting those shunned elsewhere, but comments like Cobourne's probably aren't going to make it any easier for an active player to come out. Still, encouraging athletes to speak their mind will always find support from this corner, even if the statements are ones I wouldn't endorse, and unlike Mitchell's comments, Cobourne's don't seem to violate the league's policy, so there's no real need for the CFL to step in here. His comments might well lose him some fans, but that's a peril he'll have to deal with on his own.