The B.C. Lions are going to be without one of their key defensive pieces for a little while, as defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell's two-game suspension was upheld by an arbitrator Wednesday. However, while that may hurt the Lions, it could well be a good thing for the league. Mitchell picked up the suspension for hyperextending the arm of Edmonton offensive lineman Simeon Rottier in July, and he was widely criticized for his actions, but decided to appeal anyway, putting off his suspension until now. While Mitchell may have delayed the suspension, he couldn't escape it with an appeal; that's a significant change for the CFL, and one that might actually make the league's disciplinary process appear to have enough teeth to discourage such actions in future.
The history of CFL suspensions hasn't exactly been a stunning one, and the few suspensions that have been issued have often come undone at the appeal stage. Only three players have actually served one-game suspensions since commissioner Mark Cohon took office in 2007, with several others (such as former B.C. and Hamilton offensive lineman Jason Jimenez) initially being handed suspensions that were later reduced to fines on appeal. Mitchell's case thus marks the most notable suspension of Cohon's tenure, and it also signifies another important point; a case where the arbitrator didn't reduce the league-mandated discipline. To date, those have been rare, and a move like this might convince some players to be more careful on the field. Now, fines can be a significant punishment as well, and there are plenty of cases where they're deserved, but a suspension has a much more notable on-field impact on both the player and his team, and it sets down more firmly that there are some lines the league won't tolerate players crossing.
That's not to say that CFL discipline has reached a perfect stage. Just this week, two further questionable plays (a late hit Montreal linebacker Rod Davis delivered on Winnipeg quarterback Alex Brink Aug. 3, and a chop-block Toronto offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl gave B.C.'s Keron Williams Aug. 6) were determined to only be worthy of fines, and that had plenty (including Brink himself) questioning the process. In fact, there's generally a strong argument to be made that CFL discipline is too weak; no one's asking for an NFL-style system that gives Cohon Roger Goodellesque powers of judge, jury and executioner, as that can prove excessive the other way, but the Canadian league's recent history suggests that players can get away with most things with only a little light punishment.
That's a problematic perception, considering how player safety's becoming one of the pivotal issues at all levels of football. Mitchell's suspension being upheld could be the first step towards changing that trend, however, and that's a good thing. The Lions will certainly miss one of their most crucial players up front, but Mitchell's actions against Edmonton clearly crossed a line between a legitimate football play and a vicious, outside the lines action with the potential to compromise another player's health. With this suspension being upheld, the league's finally been able to implement discipline with some teeth, and hopefully that will send a message to Mitchell and the rest of the league's players that actions that threaten other players' safety won't be tolerated. It's a vital message, and one that may finally be heard in the CFL.