The Silence of Our Friends

Published April 8, 2016

By Rachel Corbett.

I have been very impressed by the Harassment in Sport blog series presented by the Coaching Association of Canada, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity and the Sport Law & Strategy Group.

Authored by Kevin Lawrie, it is a thoughtful overview of where we have been and where we need to go. But for me it also raises the burning question, why have we made so little progress in eliminating these negative behaviours from sport? I hum along in my work, thinking things are okay and then big stuff happens like the Jian Ghomeshi affair and the Marcel Aubut scandal and I am stunned.

The Ghomeshi affair arose when I was teaching 3rd year sport management students about human resources and workplace issues, so it was a wonderful teaching moment. The Aubut scandal reached my mobile device as I was hiking on the Oregon coast, halfway through a 4-month leave from my work in sport. My reactions were many, but the main one was this: I always knew this about Mr. Aubut, so why did it take so long?

In discussions about harassment, abuse and misconduct in sport, I have long used the quote from philosopher Edmund Burke, paraphrased here - "evil only requires that good people do nothing". The other day I came across another good one, from Martin Luther King - "In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends". I was certainly not alone in the knowledge that our COC president belittled, harassed and verbally abused women around him - all of us knew, but we did nothing to support our friends.

As I returned to the human resources classroom in January 2016 I began with an overview of 2015: Leafs finally fire their coach! Toronto hosts major games! Ghomeshi charged with crimes! COC president steps down amid scandal! And ... an Ontario tribunal issues two extraordinary rulings that 'throw the book' at workplace harassers. If Edmund Burke and Martin Luther King don't inspire us to action, maybe hefty fines and penalties imposed by quasi-judicial tribunals will.

To elaborate, last year there were two unprecedented workplace harassment rulings against employers in Ontario. Both cases involved complaints from low level, lowly paid employees with short histories of employment (one victim was a temporary foreign worker). Historically, the role of this tribunal was to determine corrective and rehabilitative remedies (fix this so it doesn't happen again!) as opposed to punitive. The largest financial award had been about $20,000, and most were much lower. Until 2015 that is! Lawyerly types have surmised that Ghomeshi's unchecked behaviour as a celebrity radio host at Canada's public broadcaster contributed to this new line of thinking. In any event, in quick succession, two tribunals ordered damages of $150,000 and $300,000 against two Ontario employers.

It should be noted that the risks associated with workplace harassment and discrimination are not generally insurable. Extra steps must be taken, and extra costs incurred, to obtain harassment coverage in a general liability insurance policy. I have no idea if the two employers mentioned above carried such insurance. Even if they did, and were perhaps able to avoid total financial ruin, the damage to their reputations would be significant and lasting.

Unique in Canada, the Ontario government has now introduced new legislation to deal with harassment and sexual violence in the workplace (Bill 132). This new law, which received Royal Assent on March 8, 2016 and will be in force in a few months, imposes much greater obligations on Ontario employers in the areas of policy, prevention, education and discipline. It is notable that most Canadian NSOs and all Canadian MSOs are Ontario-based employers, so these organizations, as well as all Ontario PSOs, should pay attention.

I encourage all readers of this web site to review the Harassment in Sport series, reflect on the legal implications of NOT addressing harassment in your workplace, and resolve (like me) to never be a bystander again. Policies are important but are only part of the solution. People have to step up and say NO, this is not the sport environment we want. Let's not be the friends remembered for our silence.

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