December 10, 2019

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No way to justify rewarding Harris for spectacular CFL season

Opinion

Unfortunate.

It's a word I've been using a lot lately. Ever since news broke in late August that Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris had tested positive for metandienone, a performance-enhancing substance banned under the Canadian Football League's drug policy.

For Harris, one of the league's premier players and arguably the best Canadian ever to play a down in the CFL, the failed test set off a series of unfortunate, albeit predictable, events. In order to prevent his young daughter and wife from having to consume the instant vitriol thrown his way from seemingly all corners of the country, Harris had to delete his social media accounts for weeks.

It's also unfortunate that even if Harris is telling the truth, that he unknowingly took the anabolic steroid as part of a tainted over-the-counter men's supplement he purchased from a local health store, he's still likely to spend what's left of his Hall of Fame career fending off detractors. Because the fact is, without tangible proof, which is near impossible to obtain in these matters, it will remain a tough sell. Especially to those who don't know him.

Andrew Harris is set to earn his third-straight rushing title and this season became the CFL's all-time leading rusher among Canadian players. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)</p>

Andrew Harris is set to earn his third-straight rushing title and this season became the CFL's all-time leading rusher among Canadian players. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Still, Harris has sent away the supplement to be tested in hopes of finding the needle in the haystack. I hope he discovers what he's looking for.

Finally, it's unfortunate that despite his relentless work ethic on the field and commitment to community off it, as well as the fact he's already served the league's light punishment of a two-game suspension for a first-time offender, Harris' actions, innocent or otherwise, still have lasting consequences for this season. Among those is my decision not to vote for him for any year-end awards.

On Wednesday, the CFL announced each of the nine teams' award winners, and Harris did not earn enough votes to warrant a selection. 

Defensive end Willie Jefferson was voted the team's most outstanding player and most outstanding defensive player; fullback Mike Miller also walked away with two awards, including most outstanding Canadian and most outstanding special-teams player; left tackle Stanley Bryant was named the club's most outstanding offensive lineman, putting him in contention to earn the league-wide award for a third straight season; and receiver Kenny Lawler was voted the team's most outstanding rookie.

The process for each city includes five ballots, with each team's head coach, as well as four local members of the Football Reporters of Canada, casting a vote.In Winnipeg, the voters are head coach Mike O'Shea, Bob Irving (CJOB), Ted Wyman (Sun), Darrin Bauming (TSN 1290) and me.

Even if Andrew Harris is telling the truth about unknowingly taking an anabolic steroid as part of a tainted supplement, he will still likely spend what's left of his career fending off detractors. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Even if Andrew Harris is telling the truth about unknowingly taking an anabolic steroid as part of a tainted supplement, he will still likely spend what's left of his career fending off detractors. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Under normal circumstances, Harris, given his excellent season, would be a shoo-in for the Bombers' nomination for Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Canadian. He would also be considered a major frontrunner to earn the West Division nominations, with the odds stacked in his favour to win both trophies at the awards gala during Grey Cup weekend next month in Calgary.

But these are far from normal circumstances.

While it took just seconds to vote, it took much longer to look past Harris's achievements in 2019. After all, even after missing two games due to suspension, he is set to earn his third-straight rushing title. This year, the 32-year-old Winnipeg native also reached a number of career milestones, including becoming the CFL's all-time leading rusher among Canadian players.

But though I've spent more time than I'd like to admit agonizing over this decision, the truth is, the choice was an easy one. Simply put, my personal feelings towards Harris, someone who I have great respect for and have enjoyed my professional relationship with, doesn't outweigh my journalistic integrity.

And while I gave Harris the chance to tell his story in a one-on-one interview shortly after the failed test went public and wrote a column days later saying I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt when it came to his story, there's a limit to the leeway a professional journalist should give a professional athlete.

Under normal circumstances, Andrew Harris, would be a shoo-in for the Bombers' nomination for Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Canadian and be considered a frontrunner to earn the West Division nominations. (Jeff McIntosh / Canadian Press files)

Under normal circumstances, Andrew Harris, would be a shoo-in for the Bombers' nomination for Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Canadian and be considered a frontrunner to earn the West Division nominations. (Jeff McIntosh / Canadian Press files)

In player speak: I'm just doing my job.

Though I am satisfied with my decision, and understand the potential fallout that might come from it, I do have empathy for Harris, his teammates and his fans. I've also heard and digested some of the arguments for Harris and though they weren't sufficient to sway my vote, I did give them fair consideration.

Among them, what stood out most was the claim that by not voting for Harris I am confirming he's guilty. While Harris has pleaded his innocence, he has produced nothing to prove it. We still don't know the supplement he took, what exactly "small traces" means and though he has been tested more than most players over his career, that doesn't change the fact he is guilty of having a banned substance in his system, regardless of his perceived intentions.

Further, voting for him would be sending the wrong message, while also setting a new precedent in professional sports: it doesn't matter if you test positive for a performance-enhancing drug, so long as your stats are good enough.

The NFL has a rule that any player who fails the league's drug policy is ineligible to win year-end awards for that season.

The CFL likes to be different from the NFL in a lot of ways. This shouldn't be one of them.

As president of the Football Reporters of Canada, I also bear the responsibility to come up with a solution. I'll be in talks with the league and the players union over the off-season with the hope of establishing a similar rule for the start of next season.

That way, we could prevent having to face another unfortunate decision in the future.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.catwitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

Read full biography

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