Ethics and Accountability: What the NFL could learn from its Smaller, Poorer, Canadian Football League Cousins

The NFL pre-season officially launched yesterday to much fanfare, after counting down to the 2015/2016 season since approximately 30 minutes after the end of Superbowl 49 on February 2, 2015 (otherwise known as “the worst decision by a pro-football coach in history” or “when you’re inches from the goal line in the biggest game of the year with seconds remaining and you’ve got Beast Mode, YOU ALWAYS GO BEAST MODE” – but I digress).

Much has happened while the NFL executives basked in summer’s heat, not least of which was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell upholding the Tom Brady DeflateGate suspension. For all the suspense and hot air – pun intended – this decision was a virtual certainty, as there was no way that Goodell was going to reverse another suspension decision in a 12 month period.

So with all that in mind, I tuned in to watch a bit of the Steelers-Vikings game in Canton Ohio on Sunday. Canton was the scene for this opening pre-season game after hosting the yearly Pro-Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on Thursday August 6th. At the ceremony, the NFL inducted deceased (by suicide) player Junior Seau into the Hall of Fame, and then in a moment befitting the NFL’s standards of ethics, refused to allow Seau’s daughter Sydney to make an acceptance speech on his behalf as he had requested she do. Post-mortem, Seau was diagnosed with having received a debilitating brain injury likely caused by two decades in the NFL; I wonder why they didn’t want to hear from his surviving daughter?

But I digress. Where was I? Oh right, Steelers-Vikings.

I tuned into the game and was immediately confronted with disgraced Vikings player Adrian Peterson suited up on the Vikings sidelines. Peterson was suspended last year after child abuse allegations, and has since reached a plea bargain to avoid jail time. In the spirit of those Hall of Fame inductions, the screen focused on Peterson’s face and the announcers informed their audience that we were looking at a future HoF inductee for sure (breathy excitement!), while a handy point form list appeared on-screen highlighting the details Peterson’s recent indictment.

They might as well have said “Whew! He’s served his punishment, now let’s get back to worshiping him as the future hall-of-famer that he is!”.  Incidentally, Peterson agrees with that sentiment.

Nothing to see here, move along.
Nothing more to see here, move along.

On top of that, it seems that Ray Rice is hoping to return to the NFL following his own high-profile moment in the spotlight after video surfaced showing him punching and knocking out his fiancée in an elevator. Despite everything else going on in the NFL these days, it’s Ray Rice who has been on my mind as the start of the 2015/2016 season approaches.

I wrote about Rice and the travesty that is the NFL’s approach to domestic violence policy here, taking the somewhat controversial opinion that Rice should get his job back. My point, which I stand behind, is that domestic violence is a far-reaching community problem, and sweeping it under the rug through suspension and virtual banishment of famous athletes does nothing but shield the money-making team owners and league executives from critical questions and possible revenue losses.

Instead, I argued the NFL could embrace their fame and use their bottomless bank accounts to support and promote violence prevention and treatment.

Sadly, we seem to be starting another NFL season without the comprehensive and holistic approach to domestic violence that could easily become as identifiably “NFL” as the pink gloves and socks that players don for breast cancer awareness. Somehow every NFL team, equipment and merchandise supplier can align for breast cancer, but successful and productive co-operation with local women’s shelters and educational groups continues to elude the Goodell’s NFL.

This brings me to the good news portion of today’s segment. In recent days, one national football league has implemented a domestic violence strategy which has at its heart not the punishment of abusers in the interest of profit, but rather the prevention, intervention and treatment of abusers and victims alike. That league is the Canadian Football League, and their new domestic violence policy is getting accolades from domestic violence advocates nation-wide.

On August 6th, the CFL announced a new policy developed in partnership with the Ending Violence Association of Canada and based on consultations with experts. The policy doesn’t just involve annual training workshops, although those will be implemented. In the words of CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, “In the face of a report of violence against a woman perpetrated by any CFL employee, we will always take it seriously. Doing nothing will never be an option.

CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge (photo credit: cbc.ca)
CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge: Doing Something. (photo credit: cbc.ca)

This seems to be more than mere lip service. A close review of the policy reveals a comprehensive and promising strategy. In addition to the workshops, the Commissioner commits that:

  • The CFL will support, endorse and participate in efforts to increase awareness of violence against women and ways to prevent it throughout society, in particular among Canadian youth.
  • When any CFL workplace receives a report of violence….we will act. We will assess the situation and future risk to the women in question, and engage…local experts who will make up violence against women response teams.
  • These response teams will provide the best possible support and referrals to the women affected, ensure counselling is provided where it is deemed helpful to the men involved, and will strive to act always in the best interests of any children involved.
  • We will always err on the side of safety, respect for the sanctity of human life, and every person’s inherent right to security from harm.
  • We will not act as criminal investigators, fact finders, judges or juries. Our focus is providing access to experts who can intervene, assess the risk, mitigate any harm, seek behavior change on the part of the perpetrators and contribute to positive outcomes for individuals, families and communities.

*** These policy points have been abbreviated for ease of reference; a quick overview can be found at www.cfl.ca and I urge you to review the policy yourself.

Think about these words for a moment. “Support, endorse and participate”. These are action words. These reflect the work already being done by individual teams across Canada to raise awareness of family violence. Among them are the BC Lions who participate in “Be More Than A Bystander” in conjunction with the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia, and the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos who both take part in the Leading Change program.  These words promise to do more.

The policy goes on to outline the situations where the league can (and should) impose sanctions, namely if and when allegations proceed in court and the safety of a victim and / or community members has been compromised. The league will act on all allegations regardless of the amount of evidence available supporting a claim.

I love the fact that sanctions against perpetrators are at the bottom of the list, and that they are to be implemented in consideration of victim and community safety. The CFL, like any Canadian workplace, will face family violence issues. There is no hiding it or sweeping it under the rug. Instead, it seems that Jeff Orridge’s CFL has listened to the experts and seeks to implement a strategy that can start to chip away at the attitudes that have allowed domestic violence to flourish.  That’s good for all of us.

Is the NFL listening to what’s going on north of their border? Through the glare off the camera lenses and the pomp and circumstance of a new football season, I fear that they are not. Domestic violence stories involving NFL players have become as ubiquitous as ACL tears – tragic, but the player is quickly forced to make way for their replacement. The show must go on.

Sometimes I lament the small size of Canada’s football league, the lack of glamour and the small city anthem singers. I’m ashamed for lamenting that now. This policy makes me proud to be a CFL season ticket holder, to support a league which is committed to community action in the form of more than words.

In contrast, it seems that for the NFL doing nothing is *always* the option.  Then again, we Canadians always knew that we had bigger balls.

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