Trigger Warning: This article discusses verbal, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in sport.
Safe sport has been a topic of discussion over the last two years. What’s the big deal about safe sport, you might ask?
Unfortunately, we have seen numerous news reports highlighting a dark side of sport: the verbal, physical, sexual, emotional abuse and hazing that thousands of participants have experienced while engaging in sport.
In 2015, North Americans were rocked by the hundreds of young gymnasts who came forward to testify against Larry Nassar for sexually assaulting them while he worked for USA Gymnastics and the USA Olympic Committee. It continues to be an ongoing matter. Simone Biles is currently suing USA Gymnastics for failing to keep her safe from abuse. This is while she continues to train for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
In early 2019, CBC published their investigation which found that over 200 Canadian coaches have been convicted of sexual offences in the past 20 years. These sexual offences involved more than 600 victims under the age of 18. No one sport is immune- coaches came from 36 different sports.
Canadian Hockey League
Most recently, we’ve learned of the initial proceedings of a lawsuit of 16 athletes who played in the Canadian Hockey League. Athletes allege systemic issues with hazing and abuse which occurred between 1980 and 2014. The article describes truly heinous acts of hazing that occurred on CHL hockey teams from coast to coast.
What’s even more disturbing are the allegations related to organizational systems that uphold practices of abuse. These include evidence tampering, looking the other way, not reporting and covering up incidents to save reputations. Also concerning is the lack of consistent protocols across sports and competition levels for reporting and handling complaints about abuse.
This CBC article, from November 2018, was critical of how Canadian sport organizations were managing abuse and harassment complaints. When sport organizations are responsible for the management of complaints, things get murky because of potential conflicts of interest. Rumors, backlash, the breakdown of relationships, ‘what happens if it’s not true’- all can make people reluctant to react. In response, there is a call to bring the management of these complaints out of house. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport could be a viable option as an independent third-party.
Government Taking Action
In early 2019, the federal government announced funding to develop a national code of conduct. Work has been underway. Earlier this year, I was able to observe a Safe Sport Summit. Sport professionals from across the country discussed the actions they’re taking to keep their sports safe, and where they are challenged to do better. As well, a Canadian Sport Helpline was launched as a confidential helpline for harassment, abuse and discrimination.
Organizations Taking Action
What else can be done? First and foremost, sport organizations must screen their volunteers. Gone are the days where we can be content with allowing someone to participate because “we’ve known them 20 years”. Up-to-date police record checks with vulnerable sector searches should be collected on regular intervals. We should be asking for references from organizations where individuals have previously volunteered or worked with minors and those who are vulnerable. It is time to ask straight forward questions to our volunteers and their references about what they have and have not done. We can no longer take people just because they’re a warm body and we need to fill the position. Homework must be done.
Beyond that, there are several excellent training opportunities available. Canadian Centre for Child Protection offers Commit to Kids, an online training program designed to create safe environments for kids. The element of the training that had the biggest impact on me was the suggestion of shifting our mindset from one where we are accusing people of wrongdoing, to checking that we are doing things right, in order to keep kids safe. Respect in Sport teaches people to recognize, understand, and respond to bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination. Sport for Life offers an online risk management training to explain why effective risk management is necessary. Coaches Association of Canada now offers a Safe Sport Training module. All are rich with information that contribute to a safer environment.
So What's the Big Deal About Safe Sport?
It is becoming a more common belief (as it should) that we, as sport organizers, are here to keep our participants safe, happy, healthy, and having fun. Now is the time for every one of us involved in sport to take a comprehensive look at our processes, have honest conversations, and change where we must. If your organization is interested to take action but is not sure where to start, let’s chat about how I can help. What is the big deal about safe sport? The answer should be: everything.