Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Yonus Davis has 67 problems, but football is no longer one

On many professional sports teams, the reaction to a player getting in legal trouble is inversely proportional to the player's importance; bottom-of-the-roster scrubs tend to be dumped instantly, while star players are often kept and defended until the team has no choice but to get rid of them. That doesn't appear to be the case with the B.C. Lions, though. B.C. announced the release of star running back/kick returner Yonus Davis Tuesday, a couple of weeks after it was reported that he was detained by DEA agents with 67 pounds of ecstasy (approximately 40,000 tablets) and charged with possession with intent to distribute, which could lead to a sentence of up to 20 years in jail. Davis was a revelation for the Lions last year, leading the CFL's West Division with 1,642 all-purpose yards despite not playing much early in the season, and he was named as the divisional finalist for the league's outstanding special-teams player award (which went to Toronto's Chad Owens). Now, they're going to move on without him.

From a competitive standpoint, B.C. had plenty of reasons to try and hang on to Davis. His dynamic athleticism and well-rounded skill set allowed him to thrive as a running back, a receiver out of the backfield and a punt and kick returner, and he'd proven that he could make a significant impact at the CFL level. However, his continued employment had the potential to seriously damage the reputation of both the Lions and the league as a whole. The Lions were right to take their time and fully investigate Davis' situation before letting him go, as he has only been charged, not convicted, but from this perspective, they were also right to make the decision to release him. All season long, Davis demonstrated a tremendous ability to elude opponents (such as the Alouettes' Brandon Whitaker, pictured above trying to bring him down in a Sept. 3 game), but these charges weren't going to be as easy to evade.

The CFL's in an interesting position as a sports league, as reputation arguably plays a larger role in its marketing and promotional efforts than it does in other professional leagues. In contrast to the "I am not a role model" approach promoted by Charles Barkley (and many since him), CFL athletes often focus on trying to actively engage with their communities through a variety of team-sponsored and personal charitable efforts. That's not to say that every CFL player is a perfect, upstanding citizen, as that's obviously not the case; the league's had its share of miscreants over the years, from Trevis Smith to Josh Boden. However, there's a lot at stake for the CFL when dealing with players who cross the line; the actions of a few shouldn't necessarily reflect on the character of the many, but continuing to employ players facing serious criminal charges can send all the wrong messages. For example, the Lions do plenty of visits to local high schools, and they've been involved with many anti-drug programs. If they have a player currently on their roster who's been charged with possession with intend to distribute, that significantly hurts their credibility during those community outreach sessions.

To their credit, the Lions' administration definitely recognizes that. Here's what club president Dennis Skulsky and general manager/coach Wally Buono had to say about the situation:

"After careful consideration, we have reached the decision to release Yonus from his contract," Dennis Skulsky, the Lions' president and chief executive officer, said Tuesday.

"It's a tough decision and we certainly weighed the factors. We have an obligation to our fans, to the corporate sponsors and partners, to our team ... and to the CFL to ensure we conduct ourselves with integrity on and off the field."

...Wally Buono, the Lions coach and general manager, said it wasn't a happy day for the club.

"It's a sad day today that we have to take the opportunity away from a young person," said Buono.

Buono said he has spoken with Davis and his agent.

"He was quite sombre," said Buono. "I would be shocked if he wasn't expecting this.

"He appreciated that we were sensitive about trying to make it all work. When you start looking at all the information that is available ... there is no choice."

It's positive that the Lions fully investigated the situation before coming to a conclusion, as charges alone don't make anyone guilty. However, it's also positive that they reacted quickly and decisively after finishing their own investigation. The Edmonton Eskimos finally parted ways with Adam Braidwood in April, almost five months after the first charges (aggravated assault and forcible confinement) and second charges (assault, uttering threats, weapons violations and breaching bail conditions) against him came out. Braidwood also remains innocent until proven guilty in court, but football requires less stringent standards than the criminal justice system (as it should); players can be released for almost any reason at any time, and damaging the reputation of their team (and by extension, the league) is a pretty compelling reason in many cases.

Each situation has to be handled on its own merits, and these releases don't mean Braidwood or Davis couldn't eventually return to the league even if either is eventually found guilty, as long as they serve their debt to society and vow to change (this is pretty hypothetical in the case of Davis, as border issues would likely get in the way). There's always room for second chances and redemptive stories. For now, though, there's no compelling reason for either to be part of the CFL, and that's why the Lions made the right move to cut their ties with Davis. They may be hurting themselves on the field by getting rid of such a promising player (although not necessarily, as they've demonstrated a tremendous ability to find running backs and kick returners lately with the likes of Stefan Logan and Martell Mallett), but they're preserving their solid organizational reputation. In this league, that matters.

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