The University of Guelph said it is “shocking and disturbing” that a former star track-and-field coach had allegedly groomed a young athlete for sex, as both the university and Athletics Canada face criticism for their handling of allegations against the man.
The Globe and Mail reported on Saturday that Dave Scott-Thomas began a two-year sexual relationship in 2002 with Megan Brown, who was a high-school phenom and then a University of Guelph student athlete.
The Globe report also describes an increasingly toxic environment experienced by many athletes, predominantly women, over the course of Mr. Scott-Thomas’s 22-year tenure. Mr. Scott-Thomas has the most wins as a coach in Canadian university sports history and has coached multiple Olympians.
The school apologized in a general statement on Saturday to those “who experienced this behaviour,” saying it had begun contacting athletes and others to offer individual apologies. A representative for the university did not reply to The Globe’s request for comment and, as of Sunday afternoon, had yet to contact Ms. Brown.
Mr. Scott-Thomas did not respond to several requests from The Globe for interviews. In a brief statement, his lawyer said the allegations were unsubstantiated and inaccurate.
The University of Guelph in its Saturday statement reiterated that it would have dismissed the coach in the past had it known of the extent of his behaviour. The statement did not address the manner in which it handled an internal investigation of Mr. Scott-Thomas in 2006 that allowed the coach to continue in his role. The university acknowledged last month that it had received a second complaint by a student against Mr. Scott-Thomas in the fall of 2019.
For many former University of Guelph student athletes, as well as elite and amateur runners in Canada and the United States, the university’s statement of apology was not good enough.
“How someone got away with this and continued to have power over young athletes for so long is shocking,” said Rachel Cliff, who ran for the University of Guelph and is now training for the Olympics this summer. “When I left the program in 2012, I knew I had seen immoral behaviour. It took years to recover and find my own place in the sport. Through it all, I felt powerless to speak up.”
Reid Coolsaet, who was coached by Mr. Scott-Thomas for more than 20 years and for two Olympic Games, said the university’s track and field alumni are reeling from the report and that the school cannot be trusted to investigate itself once again.
Mr. Coolsaet said he’s had nearly 20 conversations with former teammates since reading the story.
He and others spent the weekend unpacking what they knew of their coach, and the accusations, which Mr. Coolsaet described as “horrifying.”
Olympian Hilary Stellingwerff, who trained with Mr. Scott-Thomas as a professional runner at his club, Speedriver, and is now a coach at the University of Victoria, said she was in shock after reading the allegations.
Her husband, Trent Stellingwerff, a sports scientist at the Canadian Sport Institute, said athletics needs better mentorship and protections for athletes. “The rule of two needs to be implemented all the time – 24-7,” he said of the concept of having two coaches, one male and one female, always present in order to safeguard both athlete and coach.
“It feels like it was brushed under the rug and [the school] didn’t want to deal with it,” Ms. Stellingwerff said of the university’s handling of the 2006 investigation. “It’s shocking that it went nowhere for so long.”
The Stellingwerffs said both of them have spoken with Athletics Canada’s commissioner in recent days over the sporting body’s own investigation.
Mr. Stellingwerff said he spoke with other former assistant coaches from the period when Ms. Brown was an athlete in Guelph, and none of them were contacted by the university in its 2006 probe. “If there was an investigation, we didn’t know in 2006.”
Canadian and global elite athletes took to social media in an outpouring of support and outrage.
Canadian Olympian and 1,500-metre and 5,000-metre record-holder Gabriela DeBues-Stafford expressed her anger at Athletics Canada in a series of tweets on Sunday.
“You have failed the Canadian running community. You have failed to protect women in athletics. Again. You have lost our trust.”
American athlete Mary Cain tweeted her support for Ms. Brown’s choice to share her story.
“This is heartbreaking. Megan – you are such a powerful woman. Thank you for fighting to protect the next generation. I’m sorry for all that you went through. I’m just so sorry.”
The chair of the board of directors for Athletics Canada, Bill MacMackin, said the organization learned about the accusations as others did.
“You have a hard time grasping this goes on, but it does in sport,” he said.
Mr. MacMackin said that Athletics Canada went back through their records and are attempting to rebuild what was previously known about Mr. Scott-Thomas.
The Globe reported that the organization was warned of Mr. Scott-Thomas’s behaviour on multiple occasions beginning in 2006, and that it opted instead to promote him to many national team roles.
Mr. MacMackin also emphasized the strain an investigation places on a publicly funded organization.
“We’re significantly challenged to deal with the ones that are in front of us at the present time,” Mr. MacMackin said. “This is at the cost of other programs.”
Athletics Canada is also dealing with another abuse scandal involving former leadership at the Ottawa Lions, one of the largest clubs in the country.
“We’re sorry to the athletes who have lost confidence, we want to make a safe space,” Mr. MacMackin said, promising that there would be coming changes to Athletics Canada’s bylaws and code of conduct. He also said he’d be reaching out to Ms. Brown in the coming days.
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault’s office declined to say whether he or the department had spoken to Athletics Canada regarding the allegations.
In a statement, Mr. Guilbeault, whose mandate includes promotion and support of amateur sport, said, “We have zero tolerance for harassment, abuse, and discrimination. ... Though we’ve done a lot of good work to protect athletes from abuse and maltreatment, we still have a ways to go to eliminate those issues altogether.”
With a report from Steven Chase