Kimberley A. Martin: CFL, Tiger-Cats never should have considered Art Briles - The Buffalo News
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Kimberley A. Martin: CFL, Tiger-Cats never should have considered Art Briles

Art Briles cared.

During a 10-minute phone call, the then-Baylor head football coach raved about the inner strength and courage shown by two of his former college players turned NFL pros. They were young men who, like him, had faced devastating heartache far too early in life — the loss of a parent.

“It's an inner pain that never leaves,” Briles had told me, expressing compassion for offensive lineman, Robert T. Griffin (not to be confused with their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback), who played in Baylor’s 2011 Alamo Bowl victory over Washington just days after his mother passed away from cancer.

Briles — who was the same age as Griffin when his parents and aunt died in a car crash on their way to see him play at the University of Houston in 1976 — had allowed the player to stay with family for a few days in Euless, Texas, instead of traveling with the team to San Antonio.

In that moment, Briles told me, “you don't even think about football.”

That conversation was five years ago. Long before Baylor’s systemic cover-up of rampant sexual abuse on campus was exposed and long before the football program and university were rocked by scandal that led to Briles’ termination in May 2016.

But his past transgressions — whether you categorize them as willful ignorance or negligence — weren’t enough of a warning for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, who announced early Monday that Briles would be their new assistant head coach for the offense. The backlash was swift and furious and by day’s end, the CFL stepped in.

“We came to this decision this evening following a lengthy discussion between the league and the Hamilton organization,” the CFL and Tiger-Cats said in a joint statement, announcing their mutual decision not to allow Briles to join the staff. “We wish Mr. Briles all the best in his future endeavours[sic].”

In a Tuesday interview on Toronto radio, Tiger-Cats CEO Scott Mitchell said the team "underestimated the tsunami of negativity that was going to happen, and we made a mistake in trying to contemplate a second chance versus the impact of what had happened at Baylor."

But here’s my question: How did Briles even get in the door?

And where was the compassion for the victims, those young women of the Baylor campus who were the same age as Griffin?

Sure, the 61-year-old is a good football coach, having posted a 65-37 record in eight seasons and winning back-to-back Big 12 championship titles in 2013 and 2014. But did the Baylor scandal — and Briles’ involvement in it — not give the Tiger-Cats any pause at all?

In May 2016, Baylor suspended Briles, with the intent to terminate him, and also removed school president Ken Starr and placed athletic director Ian McCaw on probation.

Briles has been out of work since then, and had it not been for the CFL intervening, he’d again be on a football sideline.

Briles was right five years ago when we spoke briefly: Some things are bigger than football. But unfortunately for women on Baylor’s campus, Briles put football above all else.

An outside law firm hired by the university released a report showing that the school “failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University.”

The report also found that Baylor administrators “directly discouraged complainants from reporting or participating in student conduct processes, or that contributed to or accommodated a hostile environment. In one instance, those actions constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault.”

The law firm also faulted the football program for not properly vetting transfer students, including defensive ends Sam Ukwuachu and Shawn Oakman, who were both accused of sexual assault while at Baylor.

How could he back in football just one year later?

Mitchell defended the decision to hire Briles, telling the Hamilton Spectator: “We just thought it was a very serious situation, but we also felt that after talking to dozens of people, people we trust, people we admire, that Art Briles is a good man that was caught in a very bad situation. … Clearly, some serious mistakes were made along the way but we feel strongly that people deserve second chances and that’s what we’ve decided to do with Art Briles.

Mitchell also said the league knew of their decision before it was announced. “I spoke to the league about it as a potential concept and had a good discussion about it, a good deliberation about it. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether a person deserves a second chance.”

The blowback, however, was enough to convince the CFL and the Tiger-Cats to rescind their offer for Briles’ fresh start.

Their tone-deafness itself was deafening, their lack of empathy for women and sexual assault victims is egregious and downright painful.

Briles helped to cultivate a culture where women were viewed as easy targets and their voices were silenced.

How could the Tiger-Cats and CFL not understand — or worse, be shocked by — the magnitude of the response to Briles’ hiring? How could Mitchell equate an environment that turned a blind eye to sexual assault and dating violence with some “mistakes” made along the way?

The answer may lie in the culture of the Tiger-Cats. In March 2016, the team promoted Eric Tillman to general manager — six years after he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a teenage babysitter, according to ESPN, which cited a CBC News report and information obtained from a Saskatchewan court.

Tillman, who at the time of the August 2008 incident was the GM of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, reportedly approached the babysitter as she was bent over and “put his hands on her hips with his fingers in her belt loops and pulled her toward him.” According to the CBC report, Tillman was under the influence of a “double dose of sleeping pills and muscle relaxants.” He resigned from the Roughriders shortly after entering his plea despite the babysitter and her family reportedly expressing their wishes for him to keep his job. Tillman received an absolute discharge.

Yes, people make mistakes. But what Briles and Baylor administrators did was not simply just a mistake. Consider the victims. Consider how their lives were forever changed. Now ask yourself: Do you believe Briles deserves a second chance to coach football?

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