I have just finished reading Theo Fleury’s book, Playing With Fire. I have owned this book for two years, but never took it off my shelf. However, in the wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, and the revelation that Scouts Canada has been quietly keeping it’s own registry of pedophiles, I pulled Fleury’s book down and started to read.
This is a great book. It’s not great literature by any means, it’s not even good literature, but a more honest memoir I have not encountered. Added to this is the fact that I lived in Calgary during Fleury’s rookie season with the Flames when they won the Stanley Cup, and this self-described “little f***er” was an amazing talent to watch. Reading his book took me right back to those heady days of Flames hockey. I also gained a whole new appreciation of how far tenacity, discipline and hard work can take someone.
But back to the real storyline of this book – how the unchecked actions of a disgusting pedophile can destroy a life. Or in Fleury’s case, nearly destroy a life. And more significantly, how people in positions to know and to act choose to do nothing, content to be passive bystanders, or worse, enablers. By the mid-1990s it was widely known that Graham James was a creep, yet a hockey league invited him to put together a group of investors to create a new junior team, the Calgary Hitmen, and then installed him as head coach. What were they thinking, putting James in charge of a program for wide-eyed 15 and 16 year-old boys?
In Playing With Fire, Fleury describes the reaction of his trusted friend, Chuck Matson, upon getting a hint of James’ dirty past. This was during a Hitmen try-out camp and over a hundred kids were going through their paces in a rink with James. Matson was horrified and within 24 hours had convinced the ownership group to fire James and send him packing. Matson is a hero, as far as I am concerned – I wish all grown-ups would act this decisively and with such conviction.
Reading this reminded me of being in the UK nearly 20 years ago presenting at a sports conference. Swimming England had just hired a young new CEO and there were substantiated rumours floating about that a child molester was coaching in the sport. This new CEO, in his youthful righteousness, travelled the length of his small country to march this coach right off the pool deck and out of the building. After, he stated publicly that if he had not acted, he believed he would have utterly failed in his responsibility as a leader in the sport. People applauded, no-one was sued, and it is safe to assume that a lot of children were spared terrible future harm.
So what’s my point? I have done a similar rant before. Over two hundred and fifty years later, Edmund Burke has never been so right: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Penn State, Scouts Canada, Syracuse University – no doubt these organizations are full of good people, but how come they can’t do the right things?
Here is my little piece of advice – if you have even the tiniest niggling feeling that something isn’t right, trust that feeling. Be alert, ask questions, share your concerns with someone. If you suspect, even just a little bit, that a child is being harmed, do something. 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. Don’t be a bystander. Stand tall on your feet. Reach out to a child.