The Saskatoon Hilltops had an eventful couple of days last week that had nothing to do with football.
On Wednesday, a story about an off-field incident at the team’s clubhouse hit all the mainstream media outlets in Saskatoon. The incident happened on Oct. 14 a couple of days before the Hilltops played their final regular season contest on the road against the Rifles in Winnipeg.
The incident involved an 18-year-old player telling a tasteless joke. Two other players decided to address the situation themselves and taped the 18-year-old player to a pole, where he subsequently lost consciousness for a short time.
Paramedics took the player to hospital, and he was released later that night. The police were called, which resulted in an assault investigation getting launched. Officers concluded there was no intent to cause injury and the file was closed at the victim’s request.
When the paramedics were called, the Hilltops coaches and board of directors were informed of what happened. The two players responsible for the taping were suspended indefinitely by the team at that time.
Long-time Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant and team executive board member and media coordinator Chris Hengen-Braun handled the bulk of the media interviews. The Hilltops released a statement about the incident on Thursday that said the actions taken by the players who did the taping were no way acceptable and that each player, coach and board member signs a code of conduct.
This story broke as the Hilltops were at the start of their preparation period to play in the Canadian Junior Football League championship game – the Canadian Bowl. The Hilltops travel to Langford, B.C., which is a suburb of Victoria, to face the Westshore Rebels for the CJFL title on Nov. 12.
When news of this incident broke, you knew there would be people out in the general public that will judge the team. There is no way to avoid that.
On the surface, the Hilltops did a decent job in handling the situation. The taping incident is a situation that crosses the line and players have to be suspended. The team acted quickly to hand down punishment.
On that front, the Hilltops handled what they could control. If the situation would have spread more on the legal front, they would have had to ride the twists and turns of those waves.
Having dealt with the team on a very frequent basis since I settled in Saskatoon in the summer of 2014, that incident in definitely not normal, and it is a total exception of what happens around the team.
Sargeant and his staff constantly remind the players how they should be conducting themselves in a proper manner. The Hilltops players act as perfect gentlemen when they are out in public and are businesslike when they approach the craft of playing football. The players also participate in a number of community type charity events throughout the year.
When you have a roster of 83 players like the Hilltops have carried this season, you will have the odd slip. You don’t want the slip to happen, but it does happen. When you deal with that large of a group of people, eventually the numbers catch up to you where someone makes a real poor decision no matter what steps a coach takes.
I know there are people out there that would have liked to have seen names disclosed.
When you compare what the Hilltops did to what happens in the workplace with companies, the Hilltops gave way more disclosure than any company would have and that includes mainstream media companies.
In my life experiences, I am aware of companies hiding situations that are comparable or way worse to what happened in the Hilltops clubhouse. On top of that, I am aware of situations in the workplace environment in companies where the offender in a serious situation has kept his job and life moved on like nothing happened.
The Hilltops have to be given credit for handling the clubhouse situation like they did.
I also find it strange that this story broke almost three weeks after the clubhouse incident happened. Over the last two years, the Hilltops have had a lot of positive press. I know from my time working in mainstream outlets a tendency will arise to find something or anything negative to report about a team that has had a lot of positive press in an effort to look balanced.
It is the outlets’ way of saying that team isn’t so great. That team had problems.
The Hilltops have a high profile in Saskatoon, and the story of the players’ suspensions is a legitimate story.
It should also be noted that the Hilltops are not the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, when it comes to media coverage. Every aspect of the Roughriders gets dissected. The Hilltops get decent coverage, but due to media industry cuts in Canada, they are nowhere near covered like they were 10 years ago or even 15 years ago.
Due to playing in front of crowds of about 1,000, the Hilltops won’t be covered like the Roughriders, who play in front of regular crowds of over 30,000 and are on national television every week.
The clubhouse incident story would have been more of a story about three weeks after the fact if it was still in the legal realm. Without the legal realm aspect, it feels more like someone stretched to make something stick.
I know there are editors and managers out there that won’t like me saying that, but it is what it is.
The Hilltops said in their statement they have made this incident a learning experience for everyone that wears the blue and gold jersey. Besides being a learning experience for the Hilltops, I would add all teams in Saskatoon that have a high profile like the Saskatchewan Rush, Saskatoon Blades, University of Saskatchewan Huskies and Saskatoon Valkyries should also note how this situation played out as a teaching item for their programs.
If you are thinking about taking an action that opens you up to the potential of being grilled in the mainstream media, it would be wise to not follow through with that action.
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