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Steve Deakin plays at the Pickleball Canada National Championship at Queen City Pickleball Hub in Regina on Aug. 23.Heywood Yu/The Globe and Mail

Pretty much everyone involved in the Great Canadian Pickleball Revolt of 2023 agrees that things just kind of spiralled out of control.

The problems began, as they often do in realms where the stakes are small and the personalities large, with personal slights that are probably unintended. Someone displays insufficient appreciation, say, for the countless hours of volunteer work performed by others to ensure a sport that’s growing like a ravenous teenaged boy doesn’t trip over its own feet. Someone else floats the idea that the feds are trying to grab power from the provinces. Alliances form, voting blocs coalesce. Accusations of bad behaviour and counter-accusations are made; reputations are besmirched, egos bruised. Lawyers are brought in to investigate and mediate, and sometimes litigate. And before you know it, the governing elite of pickleball in this country has been thwacked, with 16 directors leaving the Pickleball Canada board – which currently has only 17 seats – over the past nine months, throwing into disarray a years-long plan to become a national sport organization (NSO) officially sanctioned by Sport Canada.

As Pickleball Canada celebrates its national championship this week in Regina, where more than 600 amateurs and a handful of pros came together to compete for bragging rights (there are no cash prizes), you might say pickleball in this country is in a right pickle. But not everyone would find that funny.

All of which might make the entire episode a cautionary tale for many Canadian not-for-profits.

If you haven’t taken up pickleball in the past few years, you probably know someone who has. After being the province of retirees for decades, it’s now the crypto of sport, with celebrities rushing to invest in the viral growth of a paddle game that combines elements of badminton, ping pong and tennis. But there are curses within the blessing of success: Local communities are frazzled by the spreading, incessant thwonk of the whiffle-style ball, and tennis players resent the sport’s encroachments. Padel, another challenger sport, is more exciting to watch. Meanwhile, pickleball itself is splintering, dominated by amateurs but overseen by national governing bodies that recognize increasing professionalization will be necessary to attract real money.

It was some time last winter that Kirk Jensen started to hear rumblings that concerned him. For several years, PCO – the acronym for the federal governing body known formally as Pickleball Canada Organization – had been talking about updating its bylaws. They weren’t compliant with the Canada Not-for-Profit Corporations Act or consistent with the Canada Sport Governance Code. And, given the sport’s explosive popularity – growing from around 1,000 PCO members in 2015 to more than 52,000 at last count – meetings involving the entire membership had become a highly impractical prospect.

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A player hits the ball with the paddle during Pickleball Canada National Championship. More than 600 amateurs and a handful of pros came together to compete for bragging rights.Heywood Yu/The Globe and Mail

Perhaps most importantly, PCO urgently wanted to become a recognized NSO, to help pave the way for federal funding and enable provincial affiliates to apply for money from their respective provinces. That couldn’t happen without new bylaws.

If you’re already starting to nod off, you’re not alone. “Governance isn’t sexy,” noted Cara Button, a senior manager with the Canadian Olympic Committee who left the PCO board last November.

So of course most PCO members weren’t paying attention. But as the president of Pickleball Alberta and a former vice-president of the federal organization, Jensen was keeping an eye on the bylaw file.

“It seemed like our national body wasn’t listening to some of our provincial bodies and their concerns. It was frustrating. It started to become dysfunctional,” Jensen said during an interview earlier this summer. Some folks – out West and in Quebec, especially – suspected the feds were trying to elbow in on their turf and might take control over sponsorships or tournaments, or disciplinary procedures.

Jensen worked the phones with his counterparts from British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec – they called themselves the G5, or the Group of Five major provinces – to slow down the process, to ask for more consultation with the feds.

Rackets and rifts: Who knew pickleball could be so divisive?

The folks at PCO HQ felt the process was already going too slowly: A previous attempt to update the bylaws in the spring of 2022 had been abandoned before it was even taken to the membership for a vote, after some of the provinces insisted they needed more than the three months’ notice they’d been given. How many consultations would be enough? Over the past year, there had been 14 meetings of a national bylaw discussion group with representatives from all regions and provinces, as well as three national surveys that canvassed the membership. (There were also 24 meetings of the PCO board’s governance committee.)

Which is why, like Jensen, Dave Best was also frustrated. A recently retired professor of sport business management who had served as director of Olympic affairs with the COC early in his career, Best steered the bylaw process as chair of the PCO board’s governance committee. More often than not, he said, the objections he heard were over language that had been taken from the statute governing Canadian not-for-profits.

“They were naive on matters of national sport governance,” he told The Globe, referring to the refuseniks. “They were inexperienced. And the worst thing is, they didn’t accept that.”

Button believes the situation is emblematic of the sector. “A lot of NSOs in Canada, they’re made up of volunteers, and those volunteers work really, really hard and they’re giving a lot of time,” she said. “And yet they don’t all have the skill set that is required for some of these positions.”

In April, the board announced the new bylaws would go to the full membership for approval at a special general meeting on June 6.

Both sides dug in.

Once again, the G5 pushed to postpone, their rhetoric heating up. They wrote to the PCO board that the process had incited a “collective loss of confidence in the ability of the Pickleball Canada executive leadership to achieve the mission of the corporation.”

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A decorative wheel is on a pillar during the championships. The sport's rapid growth has not been without challenges. Among them, pickleball itself is splintering as the sport is dominated by amateurs but overseen by national governing bodies that recognize increasing professionalization will be necessary to attract real money.Heywood Yu/The Globe and Mail

If you ask Karen Rust, she’ll tell you the problems all began in May, 2021, when Jensen ran for president of the PCO board. He was already president of Pickleball Alberta and had been counselled that he couldn’t keep both positions, since that would place him in a clear conflict of interest. He agreed he would step down from Alberta in September of that year. Instead, shortly after the AGM, PCO insisted he resign from one of the roles immediately; he chose to keep his Alberta post.

“He got very hostile,” said Rust, a retired accountant who became president after Jensen quit. (She transitioned to treasurer in November, 2022, to have more time to care for her husband, who is ailing; she finished her board term in June of this year.) “He walked away, and he’s been doing everything he can to discredit everything that everybody was doing from that point on at Pickleball Canada. It’s been really ugly.”

Hearing that in a follow-up interview this week, Jensen began to boil. “If you print that, I should almost sue her for that, because that is so far from the truth.”

If the two do call lawyers, it wouldn’t be the first time, which may help explain the current bad blood. Since last December they’ve been tangled in a dispute about something Jensen wrote in an e-mail that Rust felt was libellous. He was asked to apologize; he’s appealing.

And he insists he never wanted the job of PCO president anyway, so the idea that he was upset he had to resign is absurd. He was doing the organization a favour, he insists – and look how that turned out.

“When they couldn’t find somebody else for the job – for the good of the country and the good of the game, is the only reason I stood up and said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it,’” he said.

Jensen isn’t the only one in a legal tango after intemperate words to Rust. Peter Walker, a member of the PCO board from Calgary, found himself suspended for comments he made during the 2022 PCO annual general meeting.

All of which may have added some mildly paranoiac fuel to the belief among the G5 that the PCO board was overreaching its authority and seeking to silence opponents.

Leading up to the special general meeting, the presidents of the Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba associations sent e-mail blasts to their members rallying them to turn out en masse and defeat the bylaws. But all three are also members of the PCO board, and publicly disparaging a board-mandated initiative is not generally acceptable conduct for a director of a not-for-profit corporation. They were threatened with suspension.

At the SGM on June 6, the new bylaws went down to a crushing defeat by a vote of 2644 to 188.

But to Daphne Micallef Reid, the president of Pickleball Ontario, democracy itself was still evidently at stake. In an adrenalized letter to her members, Micallef Reid warned she and others were facing suspension. Pickleball Canada, she said, had chosen to “get rid of more provincial representatives who speak up for our rights. Can you imagine if our government representatives did that? PCO’s autocratic politicking is ruining our beautiful sport. Many members of that board have a total disregard for the provincial needs, and they make sure that anyone who speaks up for our rights gets silenced.”

The letter, Rust told The Globe, was, “outright nonsense.”

This week, Micallef Reid informed the PCO executive she was stepping down from the board. Reached by The Globe for comment, she explained tersely, “I’ve got my hands full with all of the good things we’re doing in Ontario.”

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