Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ hiring of Art Briles goes beyond the desperation of a winless CFL team

When the press release arrived that announced the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had hired Art Briles, my immediate response was: is there another Art Briles?

Because, I mean, I just, it doesn’t … Art Freaking Briles?

But no, same guy. That would be the same Art Briles who was fired by Baylor University in Texas just 15 months ago amid what was one of the biggest sexual-assault scandals in U.S. college sports history, a history that does not lack for horrible examples of such. The same Art Briles who, while maintaining he had done nothing wrong, nevertheless was the head man at a football program that, by Baylor’s own admission, saw at least 19 players accused of more than a dozen incidents of sexual assault or domestic assault, including allegations of gang rape, in the five years prior to Briles’ dismissal. Those numbers have since been dwarfed by a lawsuit alleging 52 sexual assaults, involving 31 players, over a four-year period. That lawsuit is still ongoing, although one former Baylor football player was convicted of multiple sexual assaults, while another was convicted, had that overturned, and is awaiting a new trial.

The Baylor scandal was appalling in the specifics, such as the conclusion by outside investigators that Briles and others in the athletics department had learned of an alleged gang rape involving football players and “failed to take appropriate action” — which meant it wasn’t reported to investigators — and it was appalling in the wider picture, which was that the football team was routinely protected from punishment even as alcohol-fuelled parties were used as a recruiting tool. It wouldn’t do to have something as awkward as a rape accusation come out of one of those parties, so best to keep everyone quiet. The scandal also cost the school’s athletic director and chancellor their jobs. It was a huge deal.

So, yes, that Art Briles. His hiring is to be formally addressed by June Jones — who has only been with the Tiger-Cats for a month and who was promoted by Kent Austin to head coach just last week — at a news conference in Hamilton on Tuesday. That affair will take place in the Telus Media Centre at Tim Hortons Field; just imagine how those two corporations will enjoy having their logos part of this particular story. Barry’s Jewellers, a team sponsor, was quick to express “profound disappointment” in the move on Monday and call on the team to sever ties with Briles.

Neither the team nor the CFL responded immediately on Monday to requests for comment. Scott Mitchell, the team’s CEO, told Drew Edwards of the Hamilton Spectator that Briles was “a good man caught in a very bad situation” and that “people deserve second chances.” Mitchell also said the CFL was aware of the move, Edwards reported.

We are left to wonder, then, what Jones, and more importantly, his bosses, were thinking. The Canadian Football League has in recent days been positively basking in the glow of its “Diversity is Strength” campaign, an initiative in which coaches and players wear shirts with that motto and names of CFLers with a mix of racial backgrounds. They are right to be proud of it. The timing of the campaign was moved up in a none-too-subtle attempt to comment on the divisive racial issues at play in the United States currently, and the league deservedly has won praise for its efforts. New commissioner Randy Ambrosie even managed to get some CNN interview time to talk up the league’s message.

CFL executives have also said in recent months that they know they must try to grow the league’s appeal beyond its traditional older male demographic — the Ticats were non-ironically promoting a “Huddles and Heels” women’s football clinic on Monday — and two years ago the league unveiled a policy to combat violence against women that included the possibility of lifetime bans for players found to have committed such acts. “In the face of a report of violence against a woman perpetrated by any CFL employee, we will always take it seriously,” then-commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said at the time. “Doing nothing will never be an option.” The most charitable interpretation of Briles’ time at Baylor is that he did nothing.

The Tiger-Cats are a private business, as is the league, and they have the right to hire whomever they choose. But that freedom also comes with the opportunity to be blasted for their decisions, which is where we are with this one. Hamilton is a struggling team in a winless season, so one can understand the desire for more outside help. But there must be hundreds of qualified coaches who could give Jones a hand, every one of them not recently fired from a job in which his employers said he failed to properly respond to allegations of the rape of college students by players in his charge. This is who the Tiger-Cats have chosen to help lead a turnaround?

I’d bet a good number of their fans would rather keep losing.

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