Given my previous posts reviling Roman Polanski, you might think I would be the last one to speak up publicly in defense of the Edmonton Eskimos hiring Eric Tillman as their general manager, but on Thursday the Edmonton Journal printed my letter doing exactly that.
For those of you who don't know, Eric Tillman was convicted of sexual assault in 2009 in a case involving a sixteen-year-old babysitter, and was subsequently let go by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
His hiring by the Eskimos has prompted a number of very emotional responses, mostly negative. While many people agree that Tillman may be deserving of a second chance, very few people want him to have it here in Edmonton, in a high-profile position like GM. Representatives from two Edmonton women's groups call the hiring "a horrible mistake" and say they are "outraged."
So why would I, of all people, speak up for a guy reviled by some as a convicted child molester? No, that strange sound is not a dog barking backwards or the sixth seal being cracked; it's not because what he did does not matter, because it does, and not because of his reputation up to that point. It is his actions since this incident took place that seem to indicate his character.
To begin with, since sexual assault can include the act of rape, that's what most of us associate that charge with, even though this was not the case in this instance. Tillman had been sent home from work due to erratic behaviour that may have been caused by a reaction to medication he was taking. At home, he grabbed the teenaged babysitter looking after his children by the belt loops and pulled her towards him in a sexual manner. The entire incident took no more than ten seconds, and while undeniably terrifying for the young woman involved, certainly is not rape.
The police became involved a week later, and charges were laid. Despite having no memory of the incident itself, Tillman eventually changed his plea from not guilty to guilty, and apologized to the victim. He asked for forgiveness, which he received, from both the victim and her family. The conviction was discharged this year, meaning that Tillman no longer has a criminal record.
He did not use a 'not guilty by reason of chemical insanity' plea, never tried to muzzle anyone, never denied what had happened. He shortened the process by pleading guilty, and by doing so, has taken accountability for his actions.
Listening to him being interviewed on CBC Radio Tuesday evening, Eric Tillman struck me as a deeply remorseful man who watched a half century of great reputation get washed away by an act he described as one of 'stupidity'. He made a point of not minimizing or diminishing what he did or what effect it had on the victim. His contrition felt very real to me, as did his genuine gratitude for this second chance.
If a man owns up to his mistakes and shoulders the blame, and is then forgiven by the victim and the sentence discharged by the courts, is he not worthy of a second chance? If he is not, is anyone? Craig MacTavish killed someone while drunk at the wheel, served time for it and turned his life around afterwards to become head coach of the Oilers; how does he merit an opportunity but not Eric Tillman?
Suppose a guy gets convicted of thieving, does his time, then gets caught trying to steal from a church while out on parole; who would give that guy a second chance? Well, besides anyone who saw Les Mis, that is.
A second chance, like forgiveness, is a pretty subjective thing, predicated as much on feelings as on facts. Do I believe this person's account? Are they genuinely contrite, or just sorry they got caught? Will forgiving them help me to move on? Everyone, from the victim, to her family, to the Eskimos leadership has had to ask themselves these questions, and have decided to offer that second chance, and I am glad they did; the idea of having my entire life defined by a single regrettable act like Tillman's pretty terrifying.
What's the message we send by not forgiving?
TIllman should not be allowed to work and should just crawl into a cave and die?
He should work, but not in sports?
He should work in sports, but not on my team?
He can work for my team, but not in such a high profile position?
It smacks a little bit of the NIMBY argument: 'sure Habitat for Humanity is a great idea, but not in this neighbourhood.' I'm thinking the season's ticket holders vociferously proclaiming their opposition to the hiring (and their intent to stay away from future games) haven't imagined that Moccasin Mile in Tillman's shoes.
A Vancouver Sun writer posted a column lamenting how quick we are to forgive sports figures, citing the examples of Tiger Woods, Michael Vick (as well as O.J. Simpson), and while she may have a point, the first two examples were not damned by a single incident, but by a pattern of repeated behaviours either illegal, immoral or both.
Forgiveness is an act that carries substantial emotional risk, which is certainly a contributing factor to its rarity, and explains why the debate over Tillman's hiring is so heated. Granting second chances carries similar but different risks, ones to reputations, to judgment, and even livelihoods, but hiring Eric Tillman is not going to put children at risk or send a message that sexual abuse is somehow acceptable. In the end, the entire terrible experience may end up teaching us a lesson about accountability, grace, and the opportunity for people to re-define themselves.
In time, some of these vocal and judgmental people may end up asking Tillman for his forgiveness, and I would not be surprised at all if he gives it to them.