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CFL commissioner Mark Cohon's decision to ban suspended NFL running back Ray Rice from playing north of the border following his release by the Baltimore Ravens is laudable, but it has raised claims of inconsistency. The CFL employs at least one player with a record of domestic violence, Montreal receiver Chad Johnson (who was released by the NFL's Miami Dolphins in 2012 after being arrested for domestic battery, something he later pled no contest to; he avoided jail time with that plea, but later spent 30 days in jail after violating his probation). That domestic violence record was cited by B.C. general manager Wally Buono as a primary reason why he didn't go after Johnson, but it didn't stop the Alouettes from signing him. Whether Johnson should have received another chance to play pro football or not can be debated, but it's clear that a domestic violence arrest doesn't necessarily prohibit players from playing in Canada—unless they happen to be Ray Rice. That's sparked some criticisms of the Rice decision on Twitter:
The CFL will honour the Ray Rice suspension, but allows Chad Johnson to play. Other than video footage, can someone explain the difference?
— Doug Brown (@DougBrown97) September 9, 2014
@DougBrown97 Nothing. The league seems to pick and choose when to have a moral compass
— Derek Gagnon (@DerekGagnon1) September 9, 2014
Ray Rice isn't the first player charged with domestic violence and won't be last. Remember Chad Johnson head butted his wife
— Joe Duncan (@jduncan04) September 9, 2014
— Logan McCort (@LogiesPerogies) September 9, 2014
People are right, a team shouldn't claim Rice's rights. There's no room for someone who assaults a woman in the #CFL Oh hi Chad Johnson
— EA Spitzka (@Spitzka) September 9, 2014
There are some notable differences in the Johnson and Rice situations above and beyond the obvious lack of video in the Johnson incident, though. For one thing, Johnson was never actually suspended by the NFL; Miami released him and no other NFL club signed him, but they could have. The NFL's action or inaction on a subject shouldn't really matter, as NFL and CFL discipline fortunately don't move in lockstep, but Johnson's departure from that league was about more than just off-field incidents; it was also about his increasing age and his penchant for creating controversies. Thus, his arrival in the CFL wasn't so much the league taking in a guy the NFL banned for domestic violence; it was the CFL signing a player the NFL no longer wanted. That doesn't necessarily excuse the league, but it's a factor some will undoubtedly cite in his defence.
The timing is also relevant. Johnson's release came in September 2012 and he wasn't signed by the Alouettes until April 2014, so he spent over a year out of football (and spent part of that time in jail for the probation violation). Some would undoubtedly consider that punishment for his crime. Whether it's sufficient punishment or not can be debated, but signing him over a year after his arrest definitely didn't stir up as much of a public firestorm as signing Rice shortly after the release of the video that got him banned from the NFL would have.
Is the CFL inconsistent? Yes, to at least some degree, but that's not entirely a bad thing. The league has been known as a place for second chances, and many players and executives have been given further opportunities in the league even after serious off-field charges or convictions. In some cases, such as that of B.C. long-snapper Jordan Matechuk or former Argonaut RB Ricky Williams, that's worked out well; in other cases, such as that of former Montreal running back Lawrence Phillips, it hasn't. There are also plenty of troubled ex-players that the CFL has cut loose and avoided picking up again, though, including Yonus Davis, Adam Braidwood and Joffrey Reynolds.
Generally, the league office lets teams make their own determinations of if a player with off-field issues is redeemable or worth the trouble, and by and large, that approach works. It's also good that the CFL doesn't typically follow NFL discipline, given the problems with that league's disciplinary approach. However, it's hard to fault Cohon for breaking the mold here and taking extraordinary action, even if it does open him up to criticisms of inconsistency.
A CFL team even investigating bringing in a player as controversial as Rice would generate such a firestorm and potentially do so much damage to the league's image that it's a situation worth preventing. Cases like Johnson's can be argued as similar, but signing Johnson didn't create league-wide protests. The Lions determined he wasn't worth the trouble, the Alouettes disagreed and brought him in anyway. That's a decision that's left to the teams at the moment, and each team has their own line to walk when it comes to bringing in players who might help them, but could create controversy. Each team is also at least somewhat accountable to their fans and to the public at large, so if the employment of Johnson (or other players with off-field issues) bothers enough people who protest strongly enough, teams may change their approach. For now, though, while there is some inconsistency, it doesn't seem unjustifiable.