Edmonton followed through on the rumours today, officially announcing the hiring of Eric Tillman (pictured, right) as their new general manager. The move is already a controversial one. Tillman's CFL experience is unquestioned, but so is his baggage; he stepped down as Saskatchewan's GM earlier this year after pleading guilty to sexual assault. He received an absolute discharge in that case, but some will still question if anyone with that background should be working in professional sports. However, this might be the perfect situation for both Tillman and the Eskimos; they need on-field redemption, and he's the best candidate to provide that, but he needs the image redemption they can provide.
From a strictly football point of view, Tillman appears far and away the best candidate for the job. As a general manager, he's led three different teams (the 1994 B.C. Lions, the 1997 Toronto Argonauts and the 2007 Saskatchewan Roughriders) to a Grey Cup. The only people currently in the CFL who can even come close to that are the Alouettes' Jim Popp (who won a Grey Cup with the Baltimore Stallions and then two more after they moved to Montreal) and the B.C. Lions' Wally Buono (four Grey Cups, but only the 2006 one came with him as coach and general manager). Experience isn't everything, but it plays a major role, and there aren't any other candidates whose resumes can approach Tillman's.
Moreover, Tillman isn't just living off past glories. Perhaps the most impressive part of his resume is the turnaround he instilled in Saskatchewan. After his stint with the Ottawa Renegades ended amidst ownership turmoil in 2004, Tillman was out of the league for two years. His closest connection to the CFL during that time was as a TV analyst for CBC and Sportsnet. Out of nowhere, he got back in the game in August 2006 when the Roughriders fired GM Roy Shivers. He made quick moves and led the team to the West Final that year, then put the pieces in place for their 2007 Grey Cup run in the offseason. Tillman was also instrumental in putting together the Saskatchewan team that narrowly lost to Montreal in last year's Grey Cup, so he's certainly very familiar with the current state of the league. He also worked with current Eskimos' head coach Richie Hall in Saskatchewan and was quite supportive when Edmonton hired Hall away from the Roughriders, so that relationship could turn out well. Tillman has also proven a willingness to make tough decisions in the past, though, so it's not like he'll be tied to Hall if he feels the situation demands a coaching change. If you were making a decision based solely on football credentials, hiring Tillman would be a no-brainer.
This decision involves much more than that, though, so it isn't so easy. In 2009, Tillman was charged with sexual assault because of a 2008 incident with a 16-year-old girl who was babysitting his children. Court heard that he "came up behind the teen, put his hands on her hips with his fingers through her belt loops and pulled the girl towards him." He pleaded guilty in January 2010.
That case shouldn't be trivialized or overlooked. Yes, Tillman's football credentials suggest that he's far and away the best man for the job, but the baggage he comes with does count against him. Football is just a sport, and just a small area of life; the famous "Just win, baby!" maxim of Al Davis isn't a blueprint for how today's professional sports teams should act. CFL teams in particular have to be careful with the image they present, as this is a league with strong community roots and ties. Those can't simply be ignored for the sake of putting out a better on-field product, and the Eskimos cannot send the message that sexual assault is viewed as acceptable.
Hiring Tillman doesn't have to send that message, though. A lot depends on how the organization handles this. If they try to sweep his transgressions under the rug, that would trivialize the severity of his actions and suggest that the team is more concerned with winning than their image. If they openly and frankly discuss his past and make it clear that they don't condone those actions, but are willing to give him another chance, they come out of this looking a lot better.
It's important to keep in mind the specific circumstances of Tillman's case as well. The incident happened while he was on high doses of two different prescription drugs. The legal system concluded that Tillman had committed a crime, but did not deserve further punishment. He received an absolute discharge, which means he has no criminal record and can freely travel between Canada and the U.S. That doesn't wipe the situation from history, but it does show that the justice system concluded he had already paid for his crime and was not a risk to reoffend. It's also worth remembering that the victim publicly forgave him. If she can do that, maybe the broader community should follow suit.
There's going to be heavy criticism of this move from a lot of quarters, and Tillman and the Eskimos can't just ignore that and pretend that winning will make things better. Peter James made some excellent suggestions yesterday of different proactive approaches Tillman and the team can take to show that his past actions aren't acceptable and that he's willing to work for change going forward. They're going to take a lot of flak, but with the right attitude, they could create a lot of good out of this situation.
Redemption has been one of the central themes of human civilization, stretching back through our history, our literature and our legends. It's been a crucial component of the CFL's history as well; this has been a league that has historically offered second chances to players and coaches. Redemption doesn't mean whitewashing over the past and pretending that the ugliness there doesn't exist. Rather, it's about acknowledging the mistakes of the past and working to correct them. The Eskimos are in need of some serious on-field redemption this year, as they've got less room for optimism than any other team in the league. If Tillman's past is any indication, he's the best candidate to provide that on-field turnaround. His image is in need of some serious off-field redemption, though, and the Edmonton job provides him with the chance to make a turnaround there. Second chances are a critical part of life, and this decision will provide both Tillman and the Eskimos with one. What they do with it is up to them.