The CFL's new violence-against-women policy doesn't cover pre-CFL actions

Andrew Bucholtz
The lack of a policy on players who commit violence against women before joining the CFL means commissioner Jeffrey Orridge will have to handle those situations individually. (Marketwired/CFL.)

The new policy on violence against women the CFL officially announced Thursday after close to a year of development has received plenty of praise, and rightly so. It's a strong, comprehensive look at a number of issues, from education to prevention to providing role models for the wider community to working with local anti-violence groups to ensuring the safety of victims, and it provides the league with the ability to deliver tough punishments, but the flexibility to decide when they're needed. On just about every front it covers, it hits all the right notes and provides a good blueprint for how to handle these issues. However, there is one substantial issue not covered here; players who have records of violence against women before joining the CFL. This has been a major issue in the past, and it may crop up again in the future.

There's no mention of players' pre-CFL records in the policy, and when I asked CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge about that on a conference call Thursday, he said this policy only covers actions that happen while the party in question is in the league.

"We're focused on the future," Orridge said. "These policies will apply to players currently in the CFL."

That means there still isn't a league-wide policy on whether players who have previous allegations of violence against women can play in the CFL or will face any CFL punishment for those actions, and that's something that has been a significant deal in the past. At least four CFL players last year had faced past domestic violence accusations; one of those (Argos' DB Brandon Underwood) is still playing in the league and hasn't faced CFL punishment. Orridge's comments make it sound like the league will address past histories on a case-by-case basis rather than a policy basis, which isn't necessarily a bad approach given the complexities of the issue and the vastly-differing situations out there. We'll see just how they address it, though.

If the league applies good judgement, standing against some particularly problematic players but letting other less-radioactive ones in (perhaps with suspensions or other punitive action), this could be fine. If the CFL pretends everything before a player joins didn't happen, though, that could undermine what otherwise appears to be an effective and comprehensive policy. It's notable that Orridge's predecessor, Mark Cohon, did take a strong stand against a particularly problematic player last fall, taking the unprecedented step of banning CFL teams from signing Ray Rice (who had just been released by the NFL's Baltimore Ravens after video of him striking his then-fiancée emerged), and that Cohon did that without an official domestic violence policy, instead using his powers as commissioner to determine that signing Rice would bring the league into disrepute (which it would have). Orridge would have the same power. When I asked him about Cohon's Rice decision Thursday, he wouldn't commit either way on if he would make a similar decision with another player.

"It's about individual situations, individual circumstances," Orridge said. "It really wouldn't be prudent of me to make a blanket declaration at this point."

That may be a vague statement, but it's not necessarily a bad one, and it implies that Orridge could consider new signings' pre-CFL history and potentially punish them for that (even if not under the violence-against-women policy). Of course, that means that the commissioner has a lot of power and a lot of leeway (which he does under this domestic violence policy as well); that's a good thing from a flexibility standpoint, especially as cases of violence against women often have widely-differing circumstances and context, but centralizing power in the commissioner's office has created other problems for other leagues like the NFL. 

There's no clear answer on what the CFL's policy on players' past histories of violence against women should be. On one hand, this has always been a second-chance league, and giving second chances to players isn't necessarily bad, especially when it's years and years after the incident in question. Plenty of players have run into legal trouble (in general, not necessarily in terms of violence against women) in college or the NFL and cleaned up their act in the CFL. Even long ago actions may still deserve some lighter punishment, though, to indicate that the CFL doesn't condone them whatsoever.

There are also some characters so toxic there's a strong argument the CFL should never sign them. There's a good case this league never should have touched Lawrence Phillips (who had a long record of violence against women before the CFL, faced further accusations on that front in CFL, and is now in prison and charged with murdering his cellmate), and the league was smart to ban Ray Rice. Perhaps a formal policy isn't necessary in order to keep players like Phillips and Rice out, but the lack of a formal policy does mean there will be a heavy spotlight on Orridge the next time a CFL team wants to sign a controversial player. We'll see how he handles it.

Also see our piece on the overall policy and the praise that's come in for it.