Sports in 2021 will partly be remembered for its coaching scandals
Published December 16, 2021 at 6:50 pm
TORONTO — The gut-wrenching details of the sexual violence suffered by Chicago Blackhawks prospect Kyle Beach rocked the NHL in 2021.
The scandal shattered Chicago’s once-shiny reputation, raised questions about the culture of hockey and was a major topic at last week’s NHL board of government meetings in Florida.
It also punctuated a year that seemed rife with coaching scandals, from the National Women’s Soccer League to closer to home with the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team to Canada’s women’s rugby sevens and artistic swim teams, and the coach of star sprinter Andre De Grasse.
History will determine if 2021 was a watershed year for cleaning up sport.
Experts are hopeful. They point to the outpouring of support Beach received when he opened up about his abuse in a lengthy and raw interview with TSN.
“What made this year feel different is that more survivors are speaking up, it seems, publicly, and being heard,” said Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women & Sport. “We should see that as possibly a sign of progress, in the sense that they are feeling safer to do it. But of course, they still face enormous personal risk in doing so, but seemingly less risk than before.”
The NWSL was rocked recently by allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against coach Paul Riley that resulted in numerous firings.
In Canada, Major League Soccer is investigating how the Vancouver Whitecaps handled allegations of abuse on its former women’s team.
Rugby sevens coach John Tait stepped down after a complaint launched by 37 current and former national team players. An independent review found while the conduct described in the complaint reflected the experiences of the athletes, it did not fall within the policy’s definition of harassment or bullying.
Four months before the Tokyo Olympics, Canada’s artistic swimming head coach Gabor Szauder took a personal leave during a discipline panel hearing in the aftermath of complaints from athletes.
In track and field, De Grasse’s Florida-based coach Rana Reider is under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct. Athletics Canada has suspended payments to the coach for his work with Canadian athletes pending the outcome.
If it seems like there have been more cases this year, experts say the problem has always been there. Athletes, perhaps, are discovering the power in their voice.
“Every victim that comes forward courageously pushes the conversation forward,” said Olympic freestyle skiing champion Jennifer Heil.
The three-time Olympian, who is a passionate advocate for safe sport, called on the federal government in July to make changes to its latest safe sport program, saying it still lacks the independence necessary to properly protect all Canadian athletes from abuse and discrimination. Heil was honoured for her advocacy on Wednesday when she won this year’s Bruce Kidd Leadership Award.
The federal government has since announced that the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada would be tapped to provide athletes and federally funded sports organizations with an independent place to report cases of harassment, abuse and discrimination.
The creation of an independent space for reporting was a big move forward this past year, said Gretchen Kerr, a University of Toronto kinesiology and physical education professor.
But Kerr has mixed feelings on whether or not the coaching scandals of 2021 will help push sport forward.
“I fluctuate on the answer, to be honest with you,” said Kerr, a world-renowned scholar and expert on the treatment of women and youth in sports.
Athletes like Beach speaking out — and the support they’re receiving from peers and on social media — is a significant step forward.
“On the flip side, the NHL case got a lot of attention, and so it should have. And yet, I have to say, I’m frustrated by the fact that abuse that occurs of boys and men by men gets a lot more traction than when the victims are female,” Kerr said.
She also worries that the stories that came to light in 2021 are just a continuation of a cycle of ebb and flow.
“Is this time in history different? Or is it a replication of what we’ve seen before?” said Kerr.
She pointed to the 1990s when several high-profile cases rocked sports, including Sheldon Kennedy’s revelation that Graham James abused him for several years. The disgraced former junior hockey coach went to jail for five years.
“There was this cluster of high-profile cases in the mid-1990s. Everybody scrambled, it garnered a lot of public attention, sport was under scrutiny, just as it is now. Organizations scrambled and they created policies … Essentially, the same recommendations that are coming forward now,” Kerr said.
In the fallout in the ’90s, sport organizations were required to implement safe sport policies and have dedicated staff to handle complaints to receive funding from Sport Canada.
But Kerr, Kidd and Peter Donnelly, in their 2020 study entitled “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Struggle for Child Protection in Canadian Sport,” found that 20 years later very few sport organizations were compliant with the requirements.
“I do think the landscape is changing largely due to Me Too (movement),” Kerr said. “But I do worry whether this is just another part of the cycle … I’m hoping that’s not the case.”
Heil believes the biggest change is that organizations are understanding the severity of the problem, and there’s heightened expectations on how those organizations respond partly due to public pressure amid the changing cultural conversation.
The next step, she said, is to take the onus off the athletes.
“It’s really challenging for a lot of reasons,” said Heil, who won moguls gold for Canada in 2006. “Athletes are incredibly vulnerable, because they’re single-mindedly going after one objective. They’re young, in most cases, which leaves them really vulnerable, but also in a culture where it’s not always clear to an athlete, what is emotional harassment or physical abuse. Because athletes are expected to push the limits.
“And then there’s also old-school mentality around what a good coach is, and if a coach can get results, in many cases, they’re provided free rein to do that. So that’s very confusing for athletes.”
Sandmeyer-Graves applauds the federal government’s investment in implementing an independent space for reporting and investigating, saying it’s the result of much effort and dialogue among numerous sport bodies.
“There is a huge cultural shift, on top of policy and process change,” she said.
She and other experts hope the change continues.
“I’m really grateful to the athletes who take the risk, to speak up, to demand better,” Sandmeyer-Graves said. “Because I do think that keeping public attention on this is necessary for us to keep the pressure on to ensure that we move from talk to action when it comes to real solutions.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Pressinsauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising