U of T experts make case to revise Canada’s policies on harassment and abuse in sport

Gymnast by Flickr user Lina Hayes

In light of recent revelations by CBC News and Sports about widespread sexual abuse in Canadian amateur sport, we are re-posting this article from the fall about a position paper authored by Professors Peter Donnelly and Gretchen Kerr urging revisions in Canada’s policies on harassment and abuse in sport. 

The paper was published after measures were announced by Federal Sport Minister Kirsty Duncan in June 2018 threatening loss of funding for sporting organizations that don’t immediately disclose allegations of abuse or harassment that occur within their ranks.

The issue with this, according to the authors of the paper, Professors Peter Donnelly and Gretchen Kerr of U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, is that these measures have essentially been in place as a policy requirement for Sport Canada funded sports since the late 1990s.

“By the late 1990s Canada had produced one of the most progressive examples in the world of a policy to deal with harassment and abuse in sport,” says Donnelly, who is director of CSPS. 

Sport Canada’s funding regulations in the 1990s required all national sport organizations (NSOs) in receipt of federal funding to have a publicly accessible harassment policy and designated arm’s length trained harassment officers (one male and one female) with whom athletes and/or their parents and others could raise queries or address complaints without fear of reprisal from coaches or other sport officials. And, they were expected to report annually their compliance with these policy requirements in order to receive that funding.

“Some 20 years later, our research indicates that many National Sport Organizations have encountered difficulties in implementing the policy and that, in many cases, the policy is no longer being enforced. Recent revelations about abuse in, for example, Alpine Canada and Gymnastics Canada reinforce our research findings,” says Donnelly.

The researchers randomly selected 42 NSOs and their Ontario Provincial Sport Organizations (PSOs) counterparts for analysis to determine the extent to which they complied with the regulations established under the Sport Funding and Accountability Framework (SFAF) in 1996. Specifically, they questioned whether a protection/harassment policy was publicly accessible on the organization’s website and if the policy included the names and contact information of protection/harassment officers.

Policies were discovered under a variety of headings on the organizations’ web sites and were sometimes difficult to find. From the organizations where data were available, sexual abuse/harassment was identified and defined more frequently than other forms of maltreatment, such as physical and emotional abuse/harassment, neglect and bullying, for example.

Only 27% of PSO and 39% of NSO policies mentioned a harassment officer. Far fewer stated that these positions included one male and one female and that the harassment officers were trained. None of the PSO and NSO policies identified the harassment officer as being at ‘arm’s – length’ to the sport organization. In fact, in a number of cases, the CEO or another staff member of the sport organization was identified as a recipient of harassment/abuse concerns, contrary to the policy directive to have neutral, third party individuals receive concerns.

There are a number of reasons that have made the current situation possible, according to Kerr.

“The past 20 or so years have provided evidence that PSOs and NSOs lack the capacity and expertise to address and prevent athlete maltreatment,” she says, adding that sport organizations at all levels have consistently asserted their autonomy, a right of self-governance and exemption from oversight by governments and judiciaries. In turn, this autonomy has placed sport organizations in a situation of conflict of interest and vulnerability.

“Our report provides evidence of the failures of self-regulation in sport and sport is not alone in this respect. The failures of self-regulation have been demonstrated clearly by other sectors, including the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church and the financial institutions of the U.S.”  

Finally, cases such as Graham James in Canada, Larry Nassar in the USA and Barry Bennell in the UK that involve so many victims across so many years could only occur in the context of others knowing of or at least suspecting the abusive conduct, including adults in positions of trust and authority, she says.

“This raises questions about whether stakeholders in sport are aware of their legal duty to report child abuse and how barriers to reporting may be alleviated.”

With that in mind, the researchers propose the following recommendations for distribution to the relevant policy communities:

1.    Communicate and emphasize to everyone in sport communities that prevention of harassment and abuse is everyone’s responsibility.
2.    Establish and communicate clear and consistent policies and procedures.
3.    Introduce and enforce the legal and moral duty to report for all sport organizations.
4.    Develop a federal/provincial/territorial sponsored system to cover harassment and abuse policy for all levels of sport in Canada 
5.    Make arm’s length investigation and adjudication mandatory.
6.    Establish pools of trained and independent Sport Welfare, Investigating and Hearing Officers to implement the policies.
7.    Strengthen the focus on prevention of harassment and abuse.

“This is a time of active policy development and implementation in the area of harassment and abuse, driven in no small measure by the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. We hope that this paper represents a timely contribution,” says Kerr.

“The ongoing and troubling effect of harassment, abuse and bullying are now well-established in research. The fact that the current policies are unable to address and prevent such behaviours, makes attention to the data and recommendations we outline in this paper a matter of urgency,” adds Donnelly.

 “Whenever we delay in taking action to create and implement more effective policies and procedures regarding the maltreatment of young athletes and others in sport organizations, we should reflect on those who may be current or future victims of maltreatment, and how long they will be troubled as a result of our delays.”

Read the paper here.