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Lemon, Kelly cases hang over new CFL season


The Canadian Football League is about to turn a new page with the arrival of the 2024 season, but a couple of off-season issues are still sticking to the bottom of its cleats.

We speak, of course, of the handing down to two of the longest suspensions in CFL history: an indefinite ban to Montreal Alouettes defensive lineman Shawn Lemon and a minimum nine-game punishment to Toronto Argonauts quarterback Chad Kelly.

These stories continue to draw attention because both remain unresolved. It’s not a good look for the league, despite the fact it has acted dutifully, start to finish, in both cases.

First, the Lemon case.

It’s unclear how or why, but the CFL did some digging into Lemon’s past sports wagering activity during the off-season, including during the 2023 season, while he was an unsigned free agent before he joined the Alouettes.

Laying bets while temporarily out of the CFL wasn’t against the rules. But in the process of discovery, the league found a bet from 2021 where Lemon paid 70 Euros (about $104 Canadian) for a parlay ticket that involved his team at that time, the Calgary Stampeders, covering a spread.

There was apparently no debate about the evidence the league found, which presumably was what prompted Lemon to retire in early April after re-signing with Montreal during the winter.

However, shortly after the league announced his indefinite suspension for violation of the league’s gambling policy, Lemon unretired, showed up at Als’ camp, and launched an appeal.

The CFL’s appeal process entitles a player to resume all team activities, including playing in games, while an arbitration date is set. That means Lemon can fully participate for anywhere from two to six weeks, at the discretion of his team.

And since the Alouettes welcomed him back, Lemon has been at training camp and will be in the lineup for the CFL curtain-raiser Thursday night in Winnipeg.

As there is apparently no doubt that Lemon placed the bet that drew the suspension, his appeal would have to be based on the argument that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and/or that he wasn’t aware that betting on his own team was against the rules.

He’ll have a tough case on the former, given the suspensions handed out elsewhere in the sports world for violations of gambling policies.

As for not being aware he was breaking a rule, yes, the CFL stepped up its betting education for players with the introduction of legalized gambling in Canada in 2022. Players are supposed to be made aware of rules concerning gambling annually by both their teams and the CFL Players’ Association. Having been a part of five different organizations by the time he was playing for Calgary in 2021, Lemon presumably would have been exposed to those rules, which are also plastered on the walls of every locker room.

The league has taken a lot of undue criticism in this instance, despite the fact the situation is beyond its control until it goes to arbitration.

The Kelly case is even more complicated.

In early May, the CFL handed Kelly a “minimum” nine-game suspension for violations of the league’s gender-based violence policy, specifically the sexual harassment of a female former strength and conditioning coach and verbal abuse at the team facility.

The CFL not only suspended Kelly, it made his return conditional on an expert assessment and eight weeks of counselling, after which he is to undergo another assessment before being allowed to return to the field.

The Argos didn’t help their cause on the public relations front when they allowed Kelly to appear at a rookie camp practice the same week the suspension was handed down – a move within the rules but completely tone deaf.

Kelly hasn’t been seen around Argos camp since, but a carefully worded statement he released fell far short of accepting responsibility for his actions or showing true contrition.

Now this week comes word that the lawsuit served by the former coach has been settled through mediation, with the team confirming that Kelly has begun the process for participation in the counselling sessions that are necessary for his reinstatement.

Kelly still has the right to appeal the length of his suspension and the league has reserved the right to extend his suspension beyond nine games if it’s not satisfied with his commitment to his process.

So, it’s not exactly a closed book yet.

In theory, an appeal would allow Kelly to return to play, just as Lemon has done. But the Argos would have to let that happen, which may be not serve their understood need to rehabilitate his public image as the face of the franchise. 

Such high drama and involving star players is the kind of thing the CFL rarely experiences.

But they are the elephants in the room, the stories that are impossible to ignore as the 2024 CFL season gets underway this week.