Sexual abuse in sport: Canada could be a world leader in developing solutions
New revelations of a deeply rooted culture of sexual violence and misogyny in Canadian sports have caused public outrage this summer. Academic researchers hope the outrage will translate into meaningful action from sports leaders and politicians in the global fight against sexual abuse in sports.
Canadians have felt outraged this summer by media revelations of a sexual assault scandal in ice hockey, Canada’s national sport. But exposures of sexual violence and misogyny in Canadian sports are not new. Academics and journalists have documented these problems for decades, and they are not limited to Canada.
In recent years, presidential predators and paedophile child molesters have been exposed in sports across countries like the US, UK, Afghanistan, Haiti and Mali where hundreds of athletes were abused by coaches, team doctors and leaders of national sports federations.
That is why 28 academic researchers in Canada on 26 July 2022 sent an open letter to members of the Canadian government and parliament and expressed hope that the public outrage will translate into meaningful action from sports leaders and politicians, arguing that Canadians should use the opportunity to become global role models in the fight against sexual abuse in sports.
“Sexual violence in sport is not a uniquely Canadian problem, however, Canadians now have an opportunity to become world leaders in developing effective solutions. We offer our support for this important work,” the researchers wrote.
In the open letter, the researchers point to the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) between 2007 and 2019 released three scientific Consensus Statements in which researchers warned that “sexual harassment and abuse happen in all sports and at all levels”. An IOC Consensus Statement from 2016 called for urgent action against serious and widespread sexual violence that is “facilitated by an organizational culture that ignores, denies, fails to prevent or even tacitly accepts such problems”.
But according to one of the researchers who signed the open letter, professor emerita Helen Jefferson Lenskyj from the University of Toronto, the Olympic Movement has failed to act on its own recommendations.
“Unfortunately, the Olympic industry in general, and the IOC in particular, has a habit of producing recommendations and then failing to act on them in meaningful ways,” Lenskyj says to Play the Game.
Solutions demand a complete overhaul
When asked by Play the Game how effective solutions to prevent sexual abuse in sports could be developed, the professor emerita mentions some of the initiatives already in place in Canada, such as the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada.
“However, their mandates need to be expanded beyond complaint-driven procedures to develop proactive programs, policies, and practices that focus on the perpetrators of sexual abuse and the sports leaders who fail to report sexual abuse,” Lenskyj says.
“It is not a question of providing more ‘education’ so that these individuals understand what constitutes abuse. Solutions demand a complete overhaul of the toxic nature that allows abuse to go largely unchecked. Researchers have identified many aspects of this culture and can support future efforts to change it.”
But according to the Canadian researchers, changing the male-dominated culture of a sport like ice hockey will take time and cost money. Their open letter notes that research has found that “sexual assaults, abuse, and harassment are caused by a ‘win-at-all-costs’ sports culture which normalizes violence, aggression, drinking, bullying, sexist and homophobic ‘banter’, and the degradation of women and 2SLGBTQ+ people”.
Preventing these problems, the researchers argue in their open letter, will require strong and long-term leadership from the Canadian government. Hockey Canada and other national sports federations cannot solve these complex problems alone by creating sensitivity or diversity training programs and complaint lines:
“Change will require significant investment from governments, as well as from the corporations that have benefitted commercially from using hockey in marketing campaigns. We need evidence-based methods to shift these problems. Politicians, the media, and the public must begin holding sport leaders accountable and monitoring them closely to ensure they take meaningful action.”
Public reactions are changing
Three decades ago, the Canadian freelance journalist Laura Robinson was the first to expose a culture of violence and sexual assault in Canadian junior hockey that most sports leaders turned a blind eye to, and few Canadians wanted to know about because players and coaches in Canada’s national sport were involved.
But even though the Canadian hockey culture hasn’t changed much since 1992, when The Toronto Star published Laura Robinson’s first article on the issue, public reactions in Canada have. The present outrage began in April 2022, when a 24-year-old woman filed a lawsuit and claimed 3.55 million Canadian dollars in damages saying she was sexually assaulted by eight hockey players in 2018.
The public outrage grew stronger when Hockey Canada in May 2022 settled the lawsuit with the woman for an undisclosed amount out of court, and The Canadian Press two months later exposed that Hockey Canada years ago created a multi-million-dollar National Equity Fund financed by minor hockey memberships fees to pay for uninsured liabilities, including sexual abuse claims.
Since then, both the Canadian parliament and the International Ice Hockey Federation have launched inquiries into Hockey Canada’s governance. Public funding for hockey is on hold. Major sponsors have fled the sport. And the police have reopened the investigation of the sexual assault case from 2018 and opened another case of an alleged group sexual assault in junior hockey that took place in 2003.
On top of that, hundreds of Canadian athletes across other sports such as gymnastics, boxing, skiing, bobsleigh, rugby, rowing, soccer, and swimming, have called for an independent third-party investigation of harassment and abuse in all Canadian sports. And Laura Robinson goes even further by calling on the government to stop national funding of international sporting events.
“At every opportunity, when asked what the next step is for hockey, I have said that Canada doesn’t just need to stop funding the Junior Men’s World Hockey Championships. We need to immediately stop bidding to host all international sporting events and use those funds for a national inquiry into the toxic nature of Canadian sport,” Laura Robinson says to Play the Game.
A lot of hollow words
The Canadian call for change is supported by athletes and human rights advocates all over the world. But even though the global scale of sexual abuse in sport has been documented in many reports from athlete-lead organisations such as the World Players Association, Global Athlete, EU Athletes, and Athlead, changing the culture is not easy.
"It has proven incredibly difficult to change the culture of abuse in sport for a few reasons. First, there is a lack of political will, courage, and commitment from many in sports leadership. There are some notable exceptions to this, but we see a lot of hollow words without adequate investment. More time and money need to be prioritised to end abuse,” Kat Craig, a British award-winning human rights lawyer and CEO of Athlead, says to Play the Game.
“Connected to this is a lack of transparency, good governance, and diversity in sport. Sport has convinced the world that it is so unique that it must be allowed to govern itself. But we have seen, time and again, that in abuse cases, sport lacks the expertise and independent processes to safely and effectively receive reports of abuse, and then investigate them, hold perpetrators to account and extract key learnings to prevent harm from recurring in the future.”
However, Kat Craig is hopeful that an ongoing FIFA consultation process to create an international safe sports entity to protect athletes against sexual abuse on a global level will become a reality, provided FIFA shows a willingness to adopt the proposals from experts and survivors of abuse.
Although Kat Craig is critical of the way FIFA handles abuse cases, including their failure to take reasonable steps to protect the anonymity of players, she is seeing significant political will from some of FIFA’s leadership to create change as well as a shift in attitude from some sports outside football.
“I believe that there are only two paths for sport bodies: to build better processes and structures to respond safely, appropriately, and effectively to abuse allegations, or to be publicly and legally held to account for failing to do so. The time has passed where abuse can be swept under the carpet.”
Athletes are finding their voice
To Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, athletes are the driving force in the present fight to end sexual abuse in world sports.
“Athletes are finding their voice. More athletes are realising they yield power as the most important stakeholder. Athletes want to leave sport in a better place than they found it and never want to see another child, teenager, or adult subject to abuse,” Koehler says to Play the Game.
To him, organisations like Global Athlete are needed to ensure athletes’ rights are protected. Because athletes who come forward and journalists who report on sexual abuse in sports risk retribution.
“Retribution is real for many athletes. Sadly, media also experiences retribution nationally and internationally from sport for exposing the truth and telling the athletes’ story.”
While Rob Koehler finds collective independent representation or collective bargaining essential to ensure athletes' rights are protected, he adds that both national and international sports organisations need to commit to taking the issue of abuse outside their scope:
“Sport and sporting administrators are conflicted and most want to avoid scandals in fear of hurting their brands. To be clear, abuse in sport is not a sport issue; it is a human rights issue and as a result, human rights experts outside of sport and trauma-informed investigators need to manage any abuse complaints,” Koehler argues while noting that international sports organisations need to set an example and embrace collective independent representation or collective bargaining to ensure athletes’ rights are protected.
“Collective bargaining has yielded benefits across all sports that have embraced it. It makes sport safer; it builds its brand: it yields increased revenues, and it ends up being a healthy relationship to prevent abuse. Importantly it also makes predators accountable for their abuse.”
But according to the head of Global Athlete, it is also important that national governments now step up to demand that the façade of sports autonomy is ended:
“Sport, like every industry, need oversight, accountability, and transparency. Sport has none of these. Until governments demand these principles sports will continue to be a breeding ground for abuse,” Rob Koehler concludes and explains that this is one of the reasons why Global Athlete has continuously advocated for athletes to have equal representation in sports and fifty per cent of the decision-making:
“The time is now. Athletes deserve to be represented. We need to set examples to ensure every coach, therapist, and sports administrator fully understands they will be made accountable for their actions.”