Does a Commissioner’s Office make sense for your sport organization?

Dispute resolution and abuse in sport are intersecting issues that can be addressed by policies (the current approach) or by an independent dispute resolution officer (an exciting new approach).

The new “Commissioner’s Office” may be a good fit for your sport organization.

In 2014, we helped Athletics Canada with the implementation of a Commissioner’s Office – an arms-length position that hears and decides certain types of disputes at the national level. Athletics Canada advertised the Commissioner’s Office with this job description. At the time, the position had a terms of reference that included following features:

  • Two Commissioners (acting and alternate)
  • One-year term with annual review
  • Extensive sport dispute experience
  • Scope includes national-level complaints and athlete appeals of selection, carding, and eligibility decisions
  • Commissioner can assist parties with procedural issues
  • Commissioner makes final decision
  • Database of decisions maintained

This new position was met with acclaim in the athletics community and handled sixteen cases in 2016.  We interviewed Mr. Justice Hugh Fraser, the first Commissioner, for his thoughts on why he applied for the role and how the Office worked at ‘arms-length’. Here’s what he had to say:

Going back to my own competitive career I had recognized the need for a more arms length body to deal with these types of issues. I was intrigued by the opportunity to be involved in a unique position that would be a first in Canada and I believed that my experience as a jurist would be of great assistance in developing and growing the office.

 There were one or two occasions when an Athlete expressed a concern about potential bias towards Athletics Canada but I was able to reassure them that my position was completely independent and I was carrying out my duties with no interference from Athletics Canada.

Athletics Canada is a large organization with multiple disciplines. Not every sport organization would need a Commissioner’s Office with a similar large mandate and former Judge as the acting Commissioner. A terms of reference and job description would need to be developed, and we would recommend consultation with members and stakeholders. Athletics Canada also preferred to complete the recruitment and hiring process itself. Other organizations may prefer to outsource this process, and/or engage with outside consultants.

We feel that our own Adam Klevinas, a bilingual lawyer with extensive dispute resolution experience, would make a great Commissioner for a national or provincial sport organization!

ABUSE

Last month, we assisted Athletics Canada with expanding their abuse policies and subsequently expanding the role of the Commissioner’s Office.

The definition of abuse was significantly expanded and references to workplace harassment and investigations were included. Athletics Canada also wanted to consider the ‘athlete workplace’ (e.g., training and competition venues) in their definitions and now almost any incident of alleged abuse or harassment that occurs in that space triggers an investigation. Please contact us if you would like us to review your current abuse and harassment policies or if you would like to learn more about Athletics Canada’s approach.

Also, the Athletics Canada Commissioner’s Office now consists of three (3) individuals (including representation from both languages and both gender identities) and has the expanded scope of hearing athlete disputes related to the athlete agreement, as well as the authority to hear not only national-level disputes, but also all disputes related to abuse that occur at the provincial level and club level.

This expanded mandate now means that any individual participating in athletics in Canada who experiences abuse can now go directly to one location – the Commissioner’s Office, an arms-length agent of Athletics Canada – for advice, support, and dispute resolution.

Recently, four athletes who were sexually abused by their coach suggested a number of changes to addressing abuse in Canadian sport. The creation of an independent officer for incident reporting is one of the recommendations. We applaud Athletics Canada for being ‘ahead of the game’ in this area.

In our final harassment in sport blogpost last year, “Eradicating Harassment in Your Sport Organization”, we described nine steps that sport organizations could take to remove harassment from their organization. The steps included “begin a culture shift”, “policy development”, and “dispute resolution”.

We suggest adding a tenth step – “Consider a Commissioner’s Office”.  Integrating this position with your sport organization’s current policies and procedures can make dispute resolution simple and effective, and can make it easier for athletes to receive guidance and support for instances of harassment and abuse.

Kevin Lawrie (KRL@sportlaw.ca)
Steve Indig (SJI@sportlaw.ca)
Adam Klevinas (AJK@sportlaw.ca)

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