Harassment - What We are Learning About What We are Doing

Published June 10, 1998

Harassment has been a "hot" issue in sport over the past year. The high profile Sheldon Kennedy incident involving the sexual abuse of an athlete by a coach forced the sport community to forge a collective response to this new scrutiny of its activities and relationships. There are two aspects of this response about which we are starting to identify and understand some of the more subtle dynamics at work. One is the effort to define harassment in the sport context, and the second is the effort to develop policy-based approaches to harassment issues that are responsive to the actual needs of sport organizations and clubs.

In recent years, the Centre for Sport and Law has been involved in investigating a number of harassment complaints and has helped sport organizations and clubs work with their existing harassment policies, many of which have had serious, if not fatal, limitations. This article will share some of our experiences and lessons learned in these two areas.

Harassment in the sport environment

Harassment in the sport and recreation environment isn't anything new -- it's just more visible and receiving more attention. Realistically, certain forms of harassment probably won't disappear right away, if at all. But we have learned several things. First, those who hold positions of authority in recreation and physical activity settings can take certain actions to change an environment conducive to harassment. Second, failing to take action may be seen by the courts as an implicit condoning of harassing behaviour. We have seen this in the past in employment situations, and are now beginning to see it in situations where organizations provide activities and services to children and youth.

There can be little doubt the school environment is the very sort of environment where the justice system would expect there to be measures to address potential or actual instances of harassment. There are many examples of situations that are "ripe" for such behaviour - the inherent physical aspect of many sports or sport instructional situations, team road trips, the intense relationship which often exists between the coach/teacher and the athlete/student, are just a few obvious examples.

Defining Harassment

It is difficult, if not impossible, to define harassment in black and white terms. At its worst harassing behaviour is easy to discern, but there are also grey areas since not everyone perceives behaviour the same way. Thus, any definition of harassment will contain a certain subjective element. This makes it difficult to describe acceptable norms of behaviour and to provide the clear and specific guidelines for behaviour some people look for, and even others appear to need.

Clear Examples of Harassment

Some forms of behaviour are easily interpreted as harassment, and if not harassment, then clearly as being against the law. For example, the Criminal Code sets out various forms of sexual contact or interaction that are punishable by criminal sanction.

Harassment of an individual on the basis of age, sex, race, color, religion, marital status, disability and, in most provinces, sexual orientation, constitutes discrimination under both provincial and federal Human Rights legislation and is thus also against the law.

Hazing, or initiation rites, which single out a person or group of people and subject them to embarrassing, degrading or clandestine behaviour will almost always be viewed as harassment.

The "Grey" Area of Harassment

Not everyone views behaviour the same way, and this is particularly true as one moves away from the extreme examples of unacceptable behaviour to what we might call the "grey" zone of conduct.

For example, what one person might view as acceptable another might define as harassment. Similarly, what one might see or intend as a joke, another may view as insulting or embarrassing. An invasion of personal space might seem intrusive to one person but may reflect another person's more physical or tactile way of relating to people. A coaching strategy intended to produce peak performance in an athlete or team may be viewed by one person as strident and aggressive but by another person as abusive. A congratulatory hug, kiss or pat on the 'behind' might be perfectly acceptable to some but could make others feel uneasy and vulnerable. Finally, cultural differences can give rise to behaviour or conduct which is acceptable and tolerable to some but invasive, uncomfortable and even threatening to others.

It is not just the conduct itself that makes certain behaviour inappropriate, but the context in which the behaviour occurs or its repetitive nature. Individuals who experience harassment often describe not simply the incidents of harassment, but the environment around them that is cold, hostile, or alienating. In fact, human rights legislation and case law refer to such an environment as being "chilly" or "poisoned" without referring to a specific harassment incident. Behaviour or conduct that contributes to, supports or condones such an environment is very likely harassing behaviour.

It is interesting to note that in a study on harassment in sport at the 1997 Canada Games, almost 30 percent of those surveyed who had experienced harassment identified the source of the harassment to be their peers. This sort of behaviour can be dealt with quickly and most effectively by someone in authority such as a teacher, coach or senior student responding firmly and immediately, yet informally.

We have also found over the past few years that the actions of an "over-zealous" coach or instructor can prompt numerous complaints of harassment. Is such behaviour a form of harassment? It is often difficult to say. One has to look at the coaching philosophy and values of the coach or instructor, and compare these to the values of the sport club or school. Are the expectations of the coach or instructor clearly set out? Are the athletes or students expecting one thing and the school or club another?

For example, we investigated one allegation that the failure of the coach to provide any playing time to certain athletes was a form of emotional or psychological abuse. However, the coach saw things differently -- he felt it was necessary to field the best players as the expectation of the team, the Club's executive and a majority of the parents, was to win.

Policies Are Important, but they can also be a source of trouble

The second area where we have had experience is in helping sport organizations with policy-based responses to harassment. Two main themes have emerged over the past year - in hindsight they appear obvious but they don't "hit home" until one understands the unique culture of each sport organization.

The first theme is that a single policy just won't work for every organization, and the result of an ill-fitting policy is not only the obvious frustration of those trying to apply it, but also the risk of serious emotional or legal damage to those affected when the policy fails. The second theme is that we need to address, explicitly, the kinds of environments we create around sport - and this can partly be done through policy.

Crafting a policy that works

In the publication "Speak Out. Act Now" we described two different policy approaches to harassment - the first is to have a standalone harassment policy that clearly defines norms of behaviour and provides procedures to deal with complaints, while the second is to deal with harassment as a conduct issue by incorporating it into a code of conduct and discipline policy.

But this distinction is only the tip of the policy iceberg. Regardless of the policy approach, the real challenge is to match the 'scheme' of the policy to the nature of the organization, taking into consideration factors such as the training and experience of those who will implement and administer the policy, defining who will be subject to the policy, available financial resources and the geographical distribution of the parties. For a national organization, this latter aspect can create huge financial and logistical burdens depending on how the policy is designed. It is important to consider these factors early in the process - not once the policy has been written and adopted.

In the context of a school, some issues which need to be discussed at the very outset include:

  • Where will the policy apply (across the entire district, within a particular school, or within a particular athletic program);
  • What elements of procedural fairness need to be built in and how they will be managed - and by whom;
  • How should complaints come forward, keeping in mind the reticence of many to formalize a complaint;
  • How should the school respond if a complaint, once made, is dropped.

Addressing the sport environment

The second issue that has become very clear to us is that a good policy addressing harassment as a conduct issue is necessary -- but this alone is not a sufficient response. A policy does nothing to address the problem proactively. What is needed is a complement of policies that will provide guidelines and avoid creating situations where harassment can occur. For example, schools which send teams on any overnight travel should have policies for billeting players in homes and screening chaperones. Policies for selecting coaches need to reflect the values of the school and preferred teaching and coaching styles. These and other policies don't need to be fancy -- in fact, the simplest policy is often the most instructive and the most practical.


The very nature of sport and physical activity and the nature of the institutions within which it takes place - whether the school system or the sport club -- creates an environment where harassing behaviour can easily occur, and even fester. There is widespread agreement in our society that such behaviour is harmful and we are now taking steps to educate leaders and participants about dealing with harassment. Organizations are beginning to understand that not dealing with harassment can pose very serious liability risks to the organization and to individuals.

Putting in place policies for managing these risks which reflect the culture of the organization and which work in a practical sense, is an important first step in creating sport and activity environments which are safe and rewarding for all participants.

Originally published in: CAHPERD Journal Summer 1998, Volume 64 Number 2

Recent Posts

The Power of Sport

Trespass and Restricting Access to Facilities and Events

My Passion for Sport Fueled my Passion for Sport Law

The Cost of Doing Good: Athlete Activists Pay the Price

Here’s Hoping for Healthy, Human Sport in 2024


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