Harassment Issues in Sport – from 1994 to 2012

Published February 7, 2012

In 1994, Rachel Corbett wrote a handbook on Harassment in Sport that was distributed to NSOs and other amateur sport organizations around the country. As part of our 20th anniversary of service to the Canadian amateur sport industry, we thought it might be interesting to post the handbook and ask Rachel about the evolutionary changes she has seen in on this topic since 1994.

1.  What has been the main change, between 1994 and 2012, in how sport organizations handle harassment issues?

There is definitely more awareness today than there was 18 year ago. When we wrote Harassment in Sport in 1994, there were virtually no resources on this topic that were applicable to sport, and certainly, few or no sport organizations had any policies. We actually adapted these materials from leading-edge work on harassment being done in academic environments. Shirley Voyna-Wilson (Harassment Officer at the University of Calgary) and Sandra Kirby (Researcher at the University of Winnipeg) were early leaders in this field. Since authoring this document, it has become standard practice for sport organizations to have a Harassment Policy and in fact, almost all funding agencies now require organizations to address harassment in their policy framework as a condition of receiving funding.

2.  What has changed in law?

Well, both legislation and common law have evolved. In legislation, we have seen the Criminal Code revised to reflect the crime of 'criminal harassment', or stalking, and we have also raised the age of consent and clarified the 'close-in-age' rule that applies to sexual relationships with and between young people. In Ontario, we have recently seen the introduction of legislation to address workplace safety and violence. On the common law front, the standard of care continues to be elevated and the Supreme Court of Canada has rendered some significant rulings related to how organizations should plan and deliver programs to better anticipate and manage the risk of harm to young people, or other vulnerable persons. There is also a far greater awareness of bullying and there are some very accessible and practical resources and tools to help people address bullying behaviour. Many of these have come from scholastic settings.

3.  The word 'hazing' does not appear in this 1994 handbook - but now many organizations have a 'hazing policy'.  Sport organizations in 2012 seem more aware of hazing and harassment in general.  What are some things that have resulted from this increased awareness (e.g., have instances of harassment decreased)?

I think it became standard practice to view hazing as a form of harassment around year 2000. That's about when I started to write it into policies. Certainly, people in sport are more aware of ugly behaviour (harassment, bullying, hazing, sexual misconduct) today than they were in the 1990s. But does this mean ugly behaviour has diminished? Likely not. It has just become more clandestine. I continue to be amazed when otherwise sensible sport people turn a blind eye to appalling behaviour. In my December blog post, I wrote that "All the laws, policies, standards, protocols, rules, screening systems and police checks in the world don’t protect vulnerable people from harm. The only thing that protects those people, who cannot protect themselves, is other people". Our main focus should be on educating, changing attitudes, and supporting those people who have the courage and conviction to intervene when it is called for.

4. In the 1994 handbook, you wrote about the many myths of harassment.  Are there any new myths that you would add for 2012?

The myths set out in 1994 still prevail in some quarters. As to new myths… I think any discussion today about harassment and related behaviours must take into account the internet and social media. For example, I don't think the amount of school-based bullying has necessarily increased from one generation to the next, but I think the impact of bullying on kids today is far greater because there is no escape from it. When I was a kid, I could go home at the end of the school day and be in a safe space, at least until the next morning. Kids today don't have that escape valve - through Facebook, texting and other computer-mediated communication, the bullying continues 24/7.

5.  Should sport organizations still have a stand-alone Harassment Policy?

Actually, no. Harassment now has a more precise legal definition. My experience is that much of the behaviour that people categorize as harassment is not actually harassment. It is behaviour that we can broadly categorize as misconduct. For about five years now I have been advocating eliminating stand-alone harassment policies, and I instead favour the creation of comprehensive codes of member conduct and accompanying procedures to address misconduct. For example, having a Code of Conduct combined with a Discipline and Complaints Policy, and ensuring that this Code captures all kinds of misconduct, including harassment. A number of NSOs have followed my lead and have had good success in promoting positive member behaviour through the use of these simpler, yet more comprehensive policy tools.

6.  In 1994, were sport organizations reluctant to adopt harassment policies or policies in general?  Comparatively, in 2012, are organizations more accepting of having policies? 

I don't think there was a reluctance to adopt policies, rather there was limited awareness of the importance of good policies. I have always said that policies are your friend, not your foe - they are a road map for when the road gets bumpy. Frankly, in the amateur sport world I think that the Centre for Sport and Law (as we were known then), was partially responsible for raising the awareness of the need for policy documents. We pushed that agenda quite hard, and there was a good legal case to be made to have policies for such things as safety, team selection, coach and athlete conduct, and so on. But there is a pendulum - and the pendulum is swinging back to a reasonable middle ground. I remember when Athletics Canada had four or five different policies that addressed different aspects of conduct, and it was confusing for everyone and also put the organization in a precarious position. So we took those policies, broke them down, and re-consolidated them into a single (and far simpler) document. I think we have too many policies now, and not enough common sense, problem-solving, or communication.

7.  Besides Facebook and social media policies, are you seeing any trends or developments?  Are there any policies that proactive organizations could adapt now to stay ahead of the curve?

Certainly every organization should carefully review its policies and determine if it can, through careful consolidation, have fewer of them. A truly proactive organization lives its core values, focuses on communication and education, and invests in professional development for its staff and volunteers. So I think an explicit commitment to 'live the values' of the organization can go a long way to changing how people think and act. If an organizational value is respect, and if that value is widely shared, discussed, reflected upon and reinforced, then it is far less likely that people will behave disrespectfully, and it is therefore less necessary for an organization to rely on its policies to solve a problem. A proactive organization should be attempting to pre-empt its issues so that policies are needed only in rare cases.

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