Harassment in Sport Blog Series - Blog Three: Looking Ahead

Published April 4, 2016

Our intention for this four-part blog series on harassment in sport is to review the past, assess where we are, and chart a course forward that addresses harassment both on and off the field of play. Recent major events in Canadian society – from inappropriate behaviour by Members of Parliament to shocking claims against the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi to Marcel Aubut and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) – have shown us that harassment is not only a field of play issue – it also still exists in our offices and boardrooms.

Over the past two decades, the Canadian sport sector has had to grapple with the issue of harassment in sport and we realize, as we step back today and assess where we are, that much still remains to be done. What has sport done in the past? What are we doing now? What should we do in the future?

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC), and the Sport Law & Strategy Group (SLSG) have partnered together to explore answers to those three questions in a four-part blog series published by all four partners. We encourage your comments (by email to safesport@sportlaw.ca) and we will share key comments, future discussion points, and actionable items in a fourth and final “call-to-action” blogpost.

Blog One: Looking Back

Blog Two: Current State

Blog Three: Looking Ahead

Eradicating Harassment in Your Sport Organization

Blog Three: Looking Ahead

Our first blogpost in this series reviewed our initial anti-harassment efforts in Canadian sport over the past twenty years. We discussed the creation of the harassmentinsport website and the national collective (and their respective demises), the overlooked Kinsmen report, the rise of the ethics-based national True Sport movement, and the introduction of the first Canadian Sport Policy. Our second blogpost addressed the lost coordinated momentum, the effective (but fractured) approaches by various stakeholder organizations, our current status with policy development and training opportunities, and our focus on the participant rather than on the entire sport environment.

So what’s next? This blogpost highlights burgeoning new ideas for how we can make sport harassment-free. We present interesting concepts and possible new options, and we suggest stronger partnerships across different sectors. We quote individuals who are leading successful initiatives and individuals who can offer important guidance. Finally, we present a call-to-action to everyone who has followed this blog series – from parents of recreational athletes to executives of national federations – we want to learn about your experiences and hear your best ideas for eliminating harassment in all areas of sport.

Lessons to Learn From

We have spent over twenty years battling harassment in sport yet we still encounter high-profile and occasionally systemic issues involving harassment. It is vital to understand our past failures, know why they failed, and how not to repeat them.

In our previous blogposts we referenced harassment discussion papers produced by CAAWS and the CCES, among other organizations. There is also the extensive report produced by the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine (CASEM). While there have been many reports produced at various times by different sport organizations, it is past time to move beyond reports and begin true action.

When we consider the option of establishing a network of partners working together to battle harassment in sport we should look to the example of the failed Harassment Collective (referred to in Blog One) and the lack of funding that led to its dissolution. We now know that a network relying on funding from the government is not a sustainable strategy.

As a more specific example, we see that Manitoba has created a 1-800 number for individuals to call when they experience or see harassment or abuse. We know that the hotline established by the Collective received very few calls and such an approach is better redirected to professionals (as in Saskatchewan).

We should be attuned to the developments in the United States – where the US Olympic Committee (USOC) announced that an independent advisory council would guide the launch of the Center for Safe Sport in early 2016. From this example, we can learn whether a national effort on battling harassment in sport works best as an arms-length agency for the national Olympic committee. It is worth noting that a working group studying the issue was struck in 2010 and six years later the Center still has not launched.

We can also learn lessons from recreation. Sharon Jollimore, former National Initiatives Director of the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRA) and co-creator of the Making All Recreation Safe (MARS) toolkit (which was designed to help communities implement abuse and harassment strategies), has interesting insights:

Sheldon Kennedy’s disclosure of sexual abuse was the crisis that brought awareness to the important role that municipalities have in creating a nurturing and supportive environment. To support the need of our members (recreation and parks professionals) CPRA implemented the (MARS) - Awareness to Action Initiative. The initiative was designed to support municipal recreation departments in implementing abuse and harassment prevention strategies – and make their programs, services, and facilities safer. Many municipalities took action and made changes to protect their residents.

Government Partnerships

In fact, municipalities are beginning their own initiatives – though there does not appear to be a sharing of information or resources or any focused strategy. One medium-sized Ontario city recently contracted the production of an extensive manual for sport clubs – providing template policies, basic legislation awareness, and instructions on what to do with a harassment complaint. Swift Current, Saskatchewan, with the assistance of the Respect Group launched a “Youth Certification and Safe Places” strategy that is intended to, at minimum, ensure that all individuals who work with children undergo a background check and take special training on how to be a better role model.

Provincially, ViaSport BC has created a Pink Shirt Sport Challenge to stop sport bullying. The initiative sounds very promising – organizations share best practices and become acknowledged for their efforts – but, apart from a video message from the provincial sport minister (viewed by fewer than 100 people as of this writing), details so far appear to be light. In Ontario, the provincial sport ministry is creating a Minister’s Advisory Panel to guide Game ON – the Ontario government’s (first) formal sport strategy. The preliminary Sport Plan documentation admirably places significant focus on the participation of women and girls in sport. But the Plan operationalizes “sport safety” in the context of physical injury – unfortunately and startlingly not mentioning harassment or abuse even once.

Federally, there exists a national and provincial network on Ethical Sport populated by federal and provincial government representatives and chaired by Sport Canada. The network discusses best practices across the country but its overall mandate is not clear and very little information was available to inform this blogpost.

Future Options

Important ideas for preventing harassment in the future are being discussed across the country. Here are a few:

  • Preventative Policies. Harassment prevention is often explained as having a robust Code of Conduct that describe prohibited behaviour. But preventative policies should also eliminate the potential for harassment. For example, prohibiting coaches from ever being one-on-one with athletes (by always requiring the presence of another coach or multiple athletes) reduces opportunities for athlete maltreatment. In the Board room, committees or work teams individuals should be made aware of the potential for abuse of power and be sensitive to  the use of language, inappropriate jokes and behaviours that others may construe as offensive.
  • Whistleblower Policy. A companion policy to the common Discipline and Complaints Policy is a Whistleblower Policy. This policy would differentiate between members/participants and staff and give employees and other contracted individuals a mechanism to report (even anonymously and to a third-party) instances of abusive behaviour by superiors or other staff
  • Policy Training. It’s not enough to simply have the policies – individuals should be trained on their use. When someone sees harassment what do they do? To which person should the complaint be directed and how is it handled? Some organizations are adopting a mix of policy workshops, backgrounders, and illustrative flow charts to train everyone – staff, participants, Directors, coaches, etc. – on the purpose of each policy and how they are supposed to work
  • National Initiatives. The CAC is finalizing consultations with the sport community and preparing to launch the first phase of a national ethical coaching movement. This initiative will give organizations a baseline for responsible coaching and the CAC intends to add resource capacity to organizations that adopt the movement. Also nationally, the federal government (via new sport minister Carla Qualtrough) has called for a “national strategy to raise awareness for parents, coaches, and athletes on concussion treatment”. A similar federally-backed call could be made to address harassment in sport
  • Legislation. Ontario is taking the lead by introducing the new Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, 2016. The Act amends other legislation to include new definitions of “sexual violence” and other required policy implementation and monitoring in Ontario workplaces and post-secondary schools

We asked Rachel Corbett of the Sport Law & Strategy Group, and co-writer of both the CAAWS (1994) and CCES (2015) harassment discussion papers, to summarize what she sees as the best option(s) for battling harassment in the future:

Policies to address harassment, bullying and abuse in the sport environment are necessary, but never sufficient. The only thing that stops these kinds of behaviours are people: people who are prepared to do the right thing when they see wrongs committed. I have written about this before and stand by the same words today. All the laws, policies, standards, protocols, rules, and screening systems in the world don't protect people from harm: other people do. I resolve not to be a bystander, and invite everyone else in sport to make the same commitment.

We also asked Dr. Margo Mountjoy, one of the writers of the CASEM paper and member of the IOC’s Medical Commission, about her thoughts on the best way(s) to address harassment going forward:

Respect is the key to ensuring a harassment-free sporting environment. To develop a culture of respect requires implementation of a few necessary steps: 1) policies and procedures that address the issue must be in place and activated, 2) all sport stakeholders should be educated to raise awareness of the risks through prevention interventions, and most importantly 3) stakeholders should be empowered to speak up for their rights and must have confidence in a reporting system to respond fairly to allegations.

Recognizing Harassment – Shifting Our Thinking

We know that small, almost imperceptible instances of differentiation within a group or team can begin to establish a culture of harassment. Consider the formerly common practice of having a “rookie” carry equipment or perform menial tasks for other, senior athletes. In the past, these practices would be considered “team-building”. But our progressive thinking, and academic research, now recognizes this to be harassment – or more specifically hazing:

Any potentially humiliating, degrading, abusive, or dangerous activity expected of a junior-ranking athlete by a more senior teammate, which does not contribute to either athlete’s positive development, but is required to be accepted as part of a team, regardless of the junior-ranking athlete’s willingness to participate. This includes, but is not limited to, any activity, no matter how traditional or seemingly benign, that sets apart or alienates any teammate based on class, number of years on the team, or athletic ability. (Crow and Macintosh, 2009, p. 449)”

Hazing rituals, though not as extreme as they may have been in the past, still exist in professional sport culture. Consider the annual example (video) of ‘rookie’ professional athletes dressing as women (which, in this case, is not only harassment but offensive). Per the above video clip, and this link, and this link, these examples are excused by the media as being humourous and light-hearted. Excusing harassment as “funny” is just as dangerous as excusing it as “team-building”.

Sports broadcaster (and humourist) James Duthie included the following passage in his 2015 book The Guy on the Left. The passage is presented as humour and was further highlighted via retweet by Duthie on his Twitter feed:

[In Bantam AAA,] Versteeg complained a lot, so the manager gave him the handle Bitch. It stuck. One night, they were losing 1-0 and Versteeg was struggling. His grandmother was in the stands, and she started yelling, “Skate, Bitch, Skate!”

This example displays harmful harassing behaviour on the part of the coach. Calling a thirteen-year-old child “bitch” because of his “complaining” to the effect that the child’s family joined in on the harassment paints a frightening picture of a coach abusing his position. Consider the effect on the child – being cursed at by his coach, being called a word used to demean females, and being punished for “complaining” with a derogatory nickname. That this example is published as humour – readers are expected to laugh – normalizes the behaviour and simply changes the former “team-building” excuse that we have rejected to an “it was funny” excuse. Either way – the harassment is still there and now we are not recognizing it.

We need to stop making excuses for harassment, on the field or in the boardroom. This will start to shift our focus onto the behaviour itself rather than on making excuses for why it happens. Recall that one excuse used in the COC example to explain away former President Marcel Aubut’s alleged harassing behaviour was “That’s our Marcel – he’s like that”.

Call To Action

We received a number of responses to our previous blogposts and we invite you now to share your experiences, opinions, and ideas for the future. Is a broad government-nonprofit partnership the way forward? Should we resurrect a national collective or assign the responsibility for harassment-free sport to a single advocative organization? Are our fractured initiatives progressing satisfactorily?

Have you experienced or witnessed harassment in the sport environment (particularly off the field of play)? Was it resolved and, if not, how could it have been resolved? Have you seen anti-harassment policies and training work as intended or fail ineffectively? What barriers are there in your sport organization to eliminating harassment? What do we want to have in place in ten years?

We welcome comments and suggestions from everyone and we will share the best (with your permission) along with shortlist of actionable items in a fourth blogpost published at the beginning of May. You can email us at safesport@sportlaw.ca.


For more information contact:

Lorraine Lafrenière, CAC at 613- 235-5000 ext. 2363 or 613-769-6772

Dina Bell-Laroche, Sport Law & Strategy Group at 613-591-1246

Karin Lofstrom, CAAWS at 613-562-5667

Paul Melia, CCES at 613-521-3340 x3221

Recent Posts

Here’s Hoping for Healthy, Human Sport in 2024

Grief, Living Losses, and Shattered Dreams: Why doing the grief work will help sport heal

Recent Updates to the Canadian Sport Dispute Resolution Code

Advocating for a quality sport environment

The Olympic Esports Series: Esports have come a long way, but there's much further to go


Sign up to our newsletter.
Newsletter signup
Let's resolve your challenges and realize your vision