Gretchen Kerr is dean of the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto.
There is no doubt that sport in Canada (and other countries) is in crisis, a claim supported by the words of the federal Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge. “Athletes are right now going through a difficult time,” she told the CBC in December. “The past few months have been pretty hard on athletes around the conversation about safe sport, about all the abuse, harassment and sometimes sexual abuse that we hear about in many different sports.”
The widespread accounts of athlete maltreatment, ranging from sexual, psychological and physical abuse, to harassment, bullying, discrimination and neglect, cannot be ignored. Nor can athletes’ stories of abuse continue to be swept under the carpet or actively silenced by the actions of those in positions of power.
Complaint and investigation processes must be independent, conflict-free, transparent and trauma-informed. Taken together, athletes across a wide range of sports have spoken loudly, clearly and courageously to demand action to address the toxic cultures characterizing far too many sport experiences.
Alongside the calls for cultural change within Canadian sports, there have also been recommendations to convene a judicial inquiry, to examine these issues.
Such an inquiry would, in theory, unearth the nature of athlete maltreatment and the effects of these experiences on athlete health and well-being, and it would help to reveal the actions (or lack thereof) taken by those responsible for athlete welfare. An inquiry would also enable athletes to have a voice and a forum for telling their stories and sharing what’s needed for positive change, and it might contribute to the healing journey for survivors.
These are all important reasons for an inquiry. But is there another, and perhaps better, way?
Restorative justice – a process by which affected parties (survivors, community members and government) collaborate to create meaningful and sustainable social and systemic change through relationship-building – is a solution Canada should seriously consider in addressing our crisis in sports culture. It focuses on solutions, healing and care, and would be helpful in these cases as it focuses on opportunities for reparation based on respect, compassion and inclusivity.
Decades of evidence compiled by researchers in Canada and other Western countries already tell us what we need to know about athlete-maltreatment prevalence rates, the nature of these cases, the short- and long-term effects of these experiences, the root causes and needed solutions. There have already been government- and sports body-appointed task forces, with extensive consultation and research, that have made telling recommendations for reform.
One of these led to the Red Deer Declaration, an agreement by federal, provincial and territorial sports ministers in 2019, which recommended taking steps that would “eliminate abuse, discrimination and harassment in sport.”
A judicial inquiry is not necessary to understand the nature, effects and causes of maltreatment or the steps needed for constructive culture change. Instead, it would postpone the implementation of already available solutions for an extensive period of time, all while athletes continue to suffer.
What we urgently need is the creation of a platform for athletes to safely tell their stories, to seek support and to feel some sense of justice. Unfortunately, in part because of the pandemic, the Red Deer Declaration has yet to be implemented – a problem that must be remedied as soon as possible.
In addition, implementing a restorative justice process would be a viable, and faster, alternative to a judicial inquiry. It provides opportunities for those who have been harmed to share, in trauma-informed ways, their experiences and to address their needs with those who are responsible, directly or indirectly, for the harms caused.
Maltreatment violates the care and respect that should characterize the relationship between an athlete and a person in a position of authority. Restorative justice promises better outcomes than a process that focuses primarily on unearthing problems and finding blame.
We already know a lot about the causes and remedies of maltreatment in sport, and we have confidence that there are solutions that will result in concrete, positive changes to the nature and quality of all athletes’ experiences.
And, as athletes have already told us what they need, they should be the orchestrators of this change, rather than the recommendations of another set of investigators. An approach characterized by restorative justice would enable those directly affected to work together to shape the Canadian sports system we need and want, and in a timelier manner.
Advocating for abuse-free sport is a position we can all support, but let’s do it in an evidence-informed, collaborative way that prioritizes athletes’ voices and focuses on solutions.