Brandon London, Odell Willis cases show CFL players have to be careful how they criticize

Andrew Bucholtz

At first glance, there would seem to be a great discrepancy in how the CFL chooses which criticisms are worth fines and which ones aren't. Montreal receiver Brandon London was fined Wednesday (along with Saskatchewan defensive lineman Levi Steinhauer, who was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit) for comments to the media (read: comments to The Montreal Gazette's Herb Zurkowsky) criticizing the officials' performance in the Alouettes' 32-27 win, while Edmonton defensive lineman Odell Willis perhaps went even further on Twitter (before deleting his comments), but wasn't fined. On the surface, that looks like an inconsistent policy, and one that doesn't make sense in a world where Twitter often serves both as a source of media stories and as a way for players to express themselves.

However, the key point of distinction here may not be the forum the players chose. That's a good thing. Players have rightfully been fined and even suspended for Twitter comments before, and the CFL confirmed to 55-Yard Line that Twitter comments are treated like media comments for the purpose of fines. Exactly why Willis wasn't fined isn't clear, but we received an interesting suggestion on that front: what matters may not be the medium, but rather the message (sorry, Marshall McLuhan!). Namely, London's comments specifically referred to the officiating, while Willis implied the refs were to blame, but didn't actually state it (and he later denied his comment was about officiating at all). Here are the two to compare and contrast. First, what London told Zurkowsky:

“It was a terrible call,” London said on Wednesday. “I got run into and pushed to the ground. I probably didn’t have to fall to the ground, but my momentum was taking me back. I just went down.

“I thought it was a horrible call,” he added. “For me to be pushed down and they called it on me. I let the (official) know it.” ...

“It was a bad call, but I’m not going to apologize for yelling.”

And Willis' tweeted-then-deleted comments, plus additional context he added later, from Chris O'Leary of The Edmonton Journal:

Willis, under his handle @kuntrykane205, decided to fill CFL fans in.

“We just got f----d over in Montreal,” he wrote.

When the retweets and the commentary started to roll in, Willis pulled back and deleted the tweet.

“I deleted it because I saw the response and people started taking it out of context,” Willis said, adding that the profanity in the tweet had nothing to do with the officiating in the game.

“Any little thing I say, whether it’s something simple or something big, it’s going to be taken out of context. I’m still going to tweet. The only thing I can do is just try to keep it to a point where people don’t make it a big deal. Anything I say is going to be taken as a big deal because of who I am.”

Personally, the preference here would be for the league to avoid fining players over comments about the officials, and save their fines for actually dangerous plays (such as Steinhauer's hit), where they can serve as a key deterrent. London's comments are interesting, they're made in a perfectly reasonable manner (and are arguably significantly less offensive than the ones Willis made), and CFL officials should be able to handle a little criticism by now. (Heck, there are far worse comments made about them during every single game by fans on Twitter.) There's no need to clamp down on him over that. However, the mentioned possible distinction that let Willis get away with this one is an interesting one, and an understandable one: fines and suspensions are often appealed, with players frequently winning those cases (but not always), and the CFL may not have been able to prove Willis' comments were "criticism of the officials". That's very fair, and that takes this from something to criticize the league over into something that could be a useful instructional moment.

With this information in mind, here's an attempt to present a simple guide that may help CFL players criticize the officiating without losing paycheques. Let's take London's comments from above and rewrite them into a slightly less specific form, with changes represented in single quotation marks. (Players, feel free to use air quotes here!):

"It was a terrible... 'thing'. I got run into and pushed to the ground. I probably didn’t have to fall to the ground, but my momentum was taking me back. I just went down. I thought it was a horrible...'situation'. For me to be pushed down and... 'then see the result of that play'. I let the 'people on the field' know it.” ... “It was a bad...'outcome', but I’m not going to apologize for yelling.”

This could make for some highly enjoyable press conferences (especially if players start adopting airquotes, and/or turn this into MadLibs), and it could leave players with more money in their wallets. Everyone wins! (Except London, who won't get his money back, but hey, maybe it will help down the road...)

Disclaimer: 55-Yard Line is not in charge of fining players, and as such, cannot guarantee that the above approach will avoid all CFL fines. We can't even guarantee that it will be funny, but there's a good chance of that. Use at your own risk.