Lawrence Phillips accused of murdering cellmate; was CFL wrong to let him play?

Andrew Bucholtz
Former Alouettes' RB Lawrence Phillips (11) is charged with murdering his cellmate. (CFL Scrapbook.)

Former Montreal Alouettes' running back Lawrence Phillips' legal problems have gotten worse. Phillips is currently serving time in California's Kern Valley State Prison for domestic violence, false imprisonment and vehicle theft, and he's now accused of murdering his cellmate. From The Los Angeles Times:

Former NFL running back Lawrence Phillips is suspected of killing his cellmate at a California state prison where he is serving a 31-year sentence, officials said Monday.

Phillips, 39, is accused of killing 37-year-old Damion Soward, who was found unresponsive in his cell in Kern Valley State Prison about 12:46 a.m. Saturday, said Lt. Marshall Denning of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Phillips is currently serving a sentence after he was convicted of domestic violence, false imprisonment and vehicle theft. Soward was serving 82-years-to-life in prison after being convicted of murder.

There have been plenty of former CFL players and staffers who have faced significant legal charges, from drug dealing to kidnapping to murder, so Phillips is far from alone there. However, something that stands out about his case is that unlike most of the players in the aforementioned links, he ran into a lot of legal trouble before he came to the CFL. There's a strong argument to be made that Phillips never should have been allowed into the CFL in the first place, and that the league should take steps to avoid having a player with his kind of past winding up north of the border. Could a player with this problematic of a history wind up in the CFL today?
Phillips was a star player at Nebraska, but created several incidents while there, most notably by dragging a woman down three flights of stairs and being charged with misdemeanour assault. Former Nebraska coach (and current College Football Playoff committee member) Tom Osborne received severe criticism at the time for how he reinstated Phillips a couple of months later, and that criticism continues to hang over Osborne's career as a coach and athletic director. However, the NFL and the CFL also need to answer for how they handled Phillips' case, especially considering that two of the key CFL executives involved in the Phillips saga are still in the league. 

Before we get to Phillips' CFL career, we need to discuss his NFL career. His issues were considered to be significant enough that several teams passed on him, but the St. Louis Rams still chose him sixth overall in the 1996 draft. Trouble followed him to St. Louis, though; he was arrested three times (including for drunk driving) and spent 23 days in jail during two years with the team before they released him in 1997. He then signed with Miami, but after just two games, he pled no contest to assaulting a woman in a nightclub, prompting the Dolphins to release him. Phillips didn't land another NFL contract until 1999, spending the first part of that year in NFL Europe, but then the San Francisco 49ers took a chance on him. Phillips reportedly didn't do well in practice or with blitz pickups, though, and a block he missed on Aeneas Williams has been blamed for Steve Young's career-ending concussion. It was his refusal to practice that reportedly led to his release and the end of his NFL career, though.

Phillips briefly signed with the Arena Football League's Jacksonville Bobcats in 2001, but was released before playing a game thanks to leaving the team without talking to his coach.  That, and the rest of his history, wasn't enough to stop Montreal Alouettes general manager Jim Popp (who's still with the team in that role) from signing him ahead of the 2002 season. Phillips had trouble even getting a Canadian visa thanks to his criminal record, but that was eventually resolved. On the field, it mostly worked out for the Alouettes; Phillips ran for 1,022 yards and 13 touchdowns and was named a division all-star. He also was a key part of their 2002 Grey Cup win and the pre-event motivational shenanigans. However, Phillips reportedly caused problems during the season too, missing at least one flight and earning a team-imposed suspension as well as walking out on the team at one point in a contract dispute.

After the season, things got even worse. The Alouettes released Phillips in May 2003 for "not meeting the team's minimum behavioural standards," and then-Calgary Stampeders' general manager Fred Fateri signed him. He ran for 486 yards with Calgary, but was released following an argument with head coach Jim Barker (now the GM of the Toronto Argonauts). That December, Phillips was charged with sexual assault, assault and uttering threats in relation to an incident with his girlfriend in Montreal. Since then, he's run into yet more trouble, including three domestic abuse charges and assault with a deadly weapon (he drove his car at teenagers following an argument) that led to him receiving a combined 31 years in jail. We'll see if this murder charge against him goes anywhere, but even if it doesn't, it's pretty clear that Phillips isn't an alumnus the CFL should be proud of.

Should the CFL have taken a chance on Phillips in the first place? That's a hard question to answer. On some level, the CFL does well to be a "second-chance league," even for those who have run into trouble with the law. Phillips' talent was undeniable, and there aren't many former NFL first-round picks available for CFL teams; it's understandable why the Alouettes (and then the Stampeders) wanted him. However, Phillips' case wasn't a reasonably-minor run-in with the law, and it wasn't a single run-in; he'd already exhibited a deeply disturbing pattern of behaviour before heading north of the border. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but there's a good case to be made that the Alouettes and Stampeders never should have signed Phillips even if you only consider what they knew at the time.

This isn't just reliving the past, as one of the ongoing issues facing the CFL is developing a domestic violence policy. At least four CFL players last season had been accused of domestic violence in the past, including two on Popp's team, Chad Johnson and Chris Rainey. Those cases are a little different than what happened with Phillips, of course. Phillips spent time in jail and was involved in a whole variety of charges, while the charges against the four current players were all resolved in court with minimal punishments (Johnson did spend time in jail, but that was because he showed disrespect for the court). While Phillips' situation may have been more severe, though, that doesn't mean these players are necessarily fine; employing players with past accusations of domestic violence against them is problematic for the CFL, especially when it's trying to work with women's organizations to prevent domestic violence. 

As CFL vice-president Matt Maychak, who's taking the lead on trying to formulate a domestic violence policy, told me last November, each team currently makes its own decisions on whether to employ a player or not. The league office only gets involved in particularly problematic situations, such as that of Ray Rice (who has been officially banned from the CFL). That's probably the right call in general; teams can decide for themselves if a player has changed or not and if his past is significant enough to keep him out of the league, and if fans disagree with their decisions, they can put pressure on the team to change it. However, if another player with a history as thoroughly troubling as Phillips' pre-CFL days pops up on the radar, that's something the league should act to prevent, whether that's through a formal policy or a case-specific intervention like the Rice situation.

The latest Phillips news is just more proof he never should have had the privilege of playing in the CFL. Osborne's an easy target for the light punishments he handled Phillips during his Nebraska career, but every team and executive who employed Phillips after that also deserves to face scrutiny. Perhaps they should be criticized even more than Osborne, as much more was known about Phillips and how problematic he was in 2002 than in 1995. Unlike many other players who got into trouble after their CFL careers, too, there was more than enough out there to warn teams away from Phillips in the first place. The Lawrence Phillips chapter is a dark one in the CFL's history, and it's one that hopefully won't be repeated.