Ann Peel is a member of the Athletics Ontario and Athletics Canada Halls of Fame, former member of the National Athletics team (1977–1992) and former director of Athletics Canada (2014-2018), chairing the Governance Committee that initiated the independent Office of the AC Commissioner.
The recent Globe investigation about Megan Brown, who as a young athlete was allegedly groomed for sex by former track-and-field coach, Dave Scott-Thomas, had me personally angry and disgusted. The destructive behaviours that have become woven into the fabric of sport need to change.
I spent decades in a system that puts athlete concerns last. It’s a culture of indifference built on the belief that athletes are replaceable, coaches are not. The only accountability is that of the athlete – you falter, and you’re off the team.
In the past 14 months, Athletics Canada National Team coaches Ken Porter, Desai Williams and Andy McInnis received lifetime bans after an independent investigation found they violated Athletics Canada’s sexual harassment policy and code of conduct with athletes they trained. (There have been no criminal changes against the men and none of the allegations have been proven in court.)
It’s not just track and field that is experiencing this epidemic – within the last few years we’ve learned of Bertrand Charest of Alpine Canada, who was found guilty of sex-related offences in 2017 and Matthew Bell of Swimming Canada, who was convicted of sexually exploiting a teen.
A 2019 CBC investigation revealed that from 1998-2018 at least 222 amateur sport coaches in Canada had been convicted of sex offences. Cases involved more than 600 victims under the age of 18.
A study initiated by AthletesCAN, the association of national team athletes, surveyed more than 1,000 former and current national team athletes in 2019. Twenty per cent reported psychological or other abuse during their sport careers. Why didn’t this powerful information result in an independent investigation ensuring athletes at all levels are safe?
Sport is clearly not listening to its athletes, and is not even close to its #MeToo moment.
Coaches have immense power, even at the youngest developmental level of sport. The deep interdependence of coach and athlete is a foundational relationship. I cannot overstate how vulnerable athletes are to predatory coaches. Add in a team dynamic, which hands a coach even more power, and you have a stronger recipe for abuse.
In a culture in which indifference to athlete well-being is stunning, a coach’s power and prestige is over-weighted. After all, he (yes, it’s usually a he) can always find more athletes, but it can be hard for athletes to find another coach. Megan Brown’s struggle trying to restart her athletic career after leaving a powerful coach behind is a case in point.
Lasting change will require that everyone involved begins to recognize and think about the impact of this power dynamic; the key ingredient in the toxic mess of abuse.
We should not be willing to accept any level of abuse in the interests of winning. The fact that 20 per cent of national team athletes experienced abuse demonstrates that 80 per cent did not. Clearly, we can win without abuse. Let’s try that.
Codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies have been a fixture of sport for at least 20 years. That is not the problem. The problem is lack of will. The incentives to look the other way are strong. Everyone loves a winning coach.
Sport organizations, instead of being rewarded for wins, might instead have to prove that those wins were achieved in a safe environment.
Safe sport is on the radar. Last year an athlete abuse hotline was established. It’s a good first step, but it’s not enough. We must act to neutralize the negative impact of the coach’s power over the athlete.
Change can begin with the immediate creation of an independent agency charged with ensuring that sport in Canada is safe and puts athlete well-being first. Trust can only be restored with athlete leadership and direct support. Those experiencing abuse need help identifying it and managing their response. Many feel embarrassed or ashamed that they could be exploited.
A safe sport agency would have the mandate to uphold a universal code of conduct across all sports. Its governance would reflect expertise in ethics and public health. An annual report card on every sport club and sport association, published on every website, and presented at every AGM, would begin to address accountability.
The agency would be charged with training all participants to ensure athletes are treated consistently across all sports and levels. It would no longer matter if your sport had enough money and resources to investigate complaints.
We have to change how we value winning in sport. Wins tainted by abuse are worthless. Safe athletes in healthy relationships with coaches are the real triumphs.