By Andrea Vandette
On Monday, July 30, Canadian Football League fans across the country were shocked to hear of the release of Saskatchewan running back and 2016 Most Outstanding Canadian Jerome Messam. The release of the star Canadian came as a result of voyeurism charges related to a 2016 incident that occurred while Messam was with the Calgary Stampeders, but only came to the attention of police in April 2018.
The CFL wasted no time voicing its position on the matter:
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has informed all member clubs that the league will not register a contract for Messam should any team attempt to sign him.
The release and black-balling of Messam came less than two weeks after the same treatment of Teague Sherman, defensive back with the Ottawa Redblacks. Based on complaints from three females, Sherman was charged with two counts of sexual assault related to incidents which occurred in November 2017.
Again the CFL wasted no time, stating that it would not register a contract for Sherman, adding that “the Canadian Football League has and abides by a policy on violence against women and condemns violence against women in all its forms.”
These back-to-back stances on charges related to sexual assault against women have drawn a clear line in the turf: there will be zero-tolerance in the CFL when it comes to violence against women.
While there are always those who problematize a zero-tolerance stance (and this is not the article to debate that), many in the CFL community are rejoicing in what appears to be a clear change in Canadian football culture. While Ambrosie has gained respect across the league for his hands-on approach on many fronts – expansion, instant replay, player safety, fan engagement – it is possible we have unknowingly stumbled upon another first: Randy Ambrosie as the CFL’s first feminist commissioner.
The word “feminist” has become a contentious term in recent years largely based on ill-conceived notions of what it means to be a feminist. Fed by pop culture references that paint feminism as the bastion of angry, man-hating women who want to strip men of their masculinity, prescribe women’s role in society and in the home by denouncing “traditional roles,” and turn the world into a place where pant-suited women rule and men are secondary, our collective concept of feminism has deviated significantly from the truth. So then, what does it really mean to be a feminist?
A feminist is a person, any person, who supports equality between women and men. Simple as that. In fact, the concept that any one gender is or should be superior to the other, whether men OR women, is the exact opposite of feminist principles. The essential concept of equality extends to all facets of society; political, economic, personal, social and cultural. It doesn’t mean that men and woman can and should be exactly the same; they’re not. It means men and women should have equal freedom and choice to pursue opportunities in life without facing discrimination.
When it comes to issues of violence against women, including issues of sexual assault, feminism supports the inherent rights of women as human beings to live free from violence, harassment, discrimination and unequal treatment based on gender. Feminists advocate for women’s rights as human rights, and in fact also advocate for men’s rights and recognize the harmful effects that traditional prescriptive gender roles have on men.
So is commissioner Ambrosie the first feminist CFL commissioner? Well, not really, no.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge the huge strides taken by the league under former commissioner Jeffrey Orridge with the development of an official CFL Violence Against Women (VAW) policy in 2015. Developed in partnership with the Ending Violence Association of Canada (EVA) and following consultations with multiple experts in the field, the policy applies to all personnel, not just players and coaches, and includes a provision that everyone in the CFL will receive annual mandatory training on violence against women and the issues surrounding it. According to Tracy Porteous, former Chair of EVA Canada and current Executive Director of EVA BC, “the leadership being shown by the entire CFL is to be applauded profoundly. Violence against women has long thrived in the shadows so when organizations, especially those led by men, step forward to ask, ‘what can we do to break the silence?’ it shines an important light on a subject most people don’t know what to do with. Through this policy the CFL is changing history.”
Many clubs have embraced and even gone above and beyond the call to provide the mandatory annual training, including the BC Lions, who partnered with EVA BC and the government of BC to deliver the four-year, hugely successful Be More Than a Bystander campaign; and the Toronto Argonauts, who partnered with the White Ribbon Campaign in 2015 to create Huddle Up and Make the Call, a program that raises awareness and issues a call to action in efforts to help end male violence against women. More recently, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers launched a three-year campaign in 2016, Break the Silence on Violence Against Women, consisting of a series of player-led talks and workshops on VAW in high schools across Manitoba.
While Ambrosie may not be the first feminist CFL commissioner, under his watch the CFL VAW Policy has certainly gone from a promise on paper to a resonating culture shift. The zero-tolerance handling of the Messam and Sherman charges are not the first signs of change since Ambrosie took office. In March of this year, the CFL voided Euclid Cummings’ contract with the B.C. Lions after he was charged with four criminal counts, including sexual assault charges involving two alleged victims. Ambrosie further launched an internal investigation into how Cummings was allowed to play the entire 2017 season with the Edmonton Eskimos, despite Winnipeg having previously informed the league and Edmonton of the charges. Interestingly, the CFL official statements concerning Messam and Sherman now include clear instruction that the league will not recognize contracts for these players with any team (presumably while legal proceedings are underway).
It’s possible the recent swift-acting stance taken by the CFL is a “once bitten, twice-shy” response by Ambrosie to what’s become a series of mishandled incidents and subsequent tarnishing of the CFL’s strong reputation as a pro-diversity, pro-inclusion league. Prior to the Cummings situation and after a great deal of fan uproar, the league stepped in to reverse the hiring of Art Briles by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in August of last year. Briles, a long-time friend of current Ticats head coach June Jones, was fired in May 2016 from Baylor University. While serving as the program’s football coach, an investigation discovered the school mishandled numerous sexual assault allegations against football players. One of the allegations resulted in a settlement with a former student who said she was a victim of gang rape. The suit claimed Baylor turned a blind eye to sexual assaults to build a strong football team under Briles. She said she was aware of 52 incidents of rape by more than 30 football players between 2011 and 2014. Here in Canada, we are by no means exempt from severe issues of violence against women.
In Canada, one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Of the 460,000 sexual assaults that occur in Canada each year, 3.3% are reported to police, 1.2% have charges laid, and 0.3% lead to a conviction. Of the 3.3% that are reported to police, 2-4% are deemed false reports (that’s roughly one per every 1,000 sexual assault cases). 99.7% of assailants walk free. To put that into perspective, if you were to take 5 CFL players who “allegedly” committed sexual assault, 4.985 out of those 5 would statistically not be convicted.
Faced with this challenge, the CFL, led by commissioner Ambrosie, has stepped up and taken an approach that other professional sports leagues can and should aspire to. The league has sent the message loud and clear that women’s bodies and autonomy will be respected, and that no player, coach, or financial bottomline is more important than this fundamental principle. Questions of guilt or innocence or of potential impacts on the livelihoods and reputations of individuals charged are not the issues at hand, and in fact, the CFL has shown on multiple occasions that players not convicted of a criminal offence are welcomed back, albeit cautiously. The CFL is making a change toward acknowledging a pervasive social problem in Canada, and Ambrosie is going a step further to put words and policies into action. He is doing the heavy lifting, the difficult dirty work, and certainly ruffling feathers and upsetting the status quo along the way. He may not be the first feminist commissioner, but I believe his recent actions make him a feminist commissioner, and a damn good one.
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