Challenges to Canadian Safe Sport Policy: A Summary of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Struggle for Child Protection in Canadian Sport
Canadian sport organizations have a responsibility to support their participants’ health and well-being and to keep them safe. The introduction of Safe Sport is a new overarching goal for Canadian sport organizations focusing on promoting the psychological and physical well-being of participants and preventing abuse, harassment, and other behaviours known as maltreatment (Kerr, Kidd & Donnelly, 2020). The renewed focus on Safe Sport appears to be a response to previous approaches to maintaining safety in sport, which followed a repetitive, reactive cycle of crisis, policy response, slow implementation of changes, resistance to change, and ultimately, little measurable or actionable outcomes (Kerr et al., 2020). One major challenge to moving forward in Safe Sport policy is the resistance from some leaders in sport towards independent oversight, maintaining that these challenges can be handled through self-regulation (Kerr et al., 2020). In light of the increasing awareness of the harms that can occur in sporting environments, it is truly shocking that sport is the only child-population institution in Canada that is entirely self-regulating and autonomous (Kerr et al., 2020). The article summarized below by Kerr, Kidd & Donnelly (2020) demonstrates the need for independent oversight, changes to funding structures/requirements, and prioritizing athletes’ voices in the fight against a climate of control in order to work towards a new, authentic culture of Safe Sport in Canada.
Background: The Role of Sport Canada
The role of Sport Canada is to support National Sport Organizations (NSOs) and Multi-Sport Organizations through financial support for elite athletes and to support sport organizations in hosting events where Canadian athletes can compete at national and international levels (Kerr et al., 2020). Sport Canada’s policies and programs operate under the Canadian Sport Policy Agreement between federal, provincial and territorial governments (Kerr et al., 2020). Similar levels and mechanisms of support for Provincial Sport Organizations (PSOs) are provided by provincial and territorial governments (Kerr et al., 2020).
In addition to their financial and organizational support, Sport Canada has also created or supported in the development of new organizations, including the Coaching Association of Canada, Canadian Women and Sport, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports, and the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, to protect and strengthen key ethical values in Canadian sport (Kerr et al., 2020). An additional independent organization, AthletesCAN, is composed of national team athletes who focus on the goals of athlete advocacy and the creation of athlete-centred sports systems (Kerr et al., 2020). As mentioned above, there is a notable gap of an independent regulatory body to oversee the well-being of children and youth athletes; instead, sport organizations are self-regulating in this area (Kerr et al., 2020).
Threats to Safe Sport: The Climate of Control
Two important themes related to promoting safe sport include understanding the gaps in protection that leave children vulnerable to maltreatment and understanding the shared characteristics of sport and other institutions where child maltreatment occurs (Kerr et al., 2020). First, sport is mainly self-regulated, meaning that when issues of maltreatment do occur, they are primarily handled internally (Kerr et al., 2020). This is problematic for all athletes, but particularly for children and youth, who are protected by specific laws and regulations that should be upheld by all child and youth-serving institutions, including sport (Kerr et al., 2020). In turn, this contributes to the second theme of sport as a ‘total institution’, where both explicit and implicit cultures of control exist (Kerr et al., 2020). This is especially evident in sport at elite and high-performance levels, where outcomes (ex. medals, wins vs. losses, etc.) and control are emphasized by sport leaders, and the ability of athletes to advocate for their rights and needs for participation is diminished (Kerr et al., 2020). This is supported by research that has found that in elite organized youth sports, nearly half of the articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are sometimes or often violated (Kerr et al., 2020).
Research has shown that control has become a core principle for elite and high-performance sport, contributing to a cultural context where physical and psychological harms can become a normalized, accepted part of sport culture (Kerr et al., 2020). Importantly, this is not to say that the culture of control in sport causes violence, but rather that specific forms of harm and maltreatment are used to maintain a culture of control; in turn, the culture of control creates a climate within sport where maltreatment is expected and/or accepted (Kerr et al., 2020). Similar cultures of control can be found in other institutions that exert total control, such as the military or prisons, to establish a hierarchy of power and authority (Kerr et al., 2020). This climate of control has contributed to many sports becoming highly regimented, with clear authority figures and athletes being motivated by both increasing levels of success as well as fear of punishment (ex. losing funding, not making the team, being benched, etc.) (Kerr et al., 2020). This, along with the competitive aspect of sport and the pool of talented athletes who can take one’s place, puts athletes in positions where they are highly vulnerable to manipulation and harm (Kerr et al., 2020). This can lead athletes to tolerate situations and behaviours that they wouldn’t in other circumstances (Kerr et al., 2020). For example, in education, students may work towards achieving high grades, but if a teacher motivated students towards this achievement through harmful methods, they would be punished professionally and often under the law. Further, many children and youth are hesitant to report violations of their rights, particularly because their main option is to report their concerns directly to their sport organization to be handled internally (Kerr et al., 2020).
Funding Structures Promote a ‘Win-At All-Costs’ Mentality
An emphasis on performance outcomes, contributing to a climate of control, has been built into the funding structure of Canadian sport organizations and represents a significant barrier to addressing athlete maltreatment (Kerr et al., 2020). Canadian sport organizations are primarily funded through their athletes achieving results, including international medals, records, top-10 performances, etc. (Kerr et al., 2020). As such, funding is higher for sport organizations with high-performing and achieving athletes, and lower or even cut for organizations producing less wins, medals, or other achievements (Kerr et al., 2020). Significant funding for elite athletes comes from a Sport Canada-funded organization, Own the Podium, who identifies in their mandate a goal to help more Canadian athletes and coaches win more medals at Olympic and Paralympic games (Kerr et al., 2020). This focus on winning and achievement may lead to organizational and coaching practices that constitute maltreatment and violate athletes’ rights (Kerr et al., 2020). Further, an overwhelming body of research identifies the potential individual and organizational harms of a win-at-all costs-mentality (Kerr et al., 2020).
Failure to Implement Policies from the 1990s
In response to the high-profile cases of abuse in Canadian sport in the 1990s, the Canadian government created new policies and compliance systems to address maltreatment in sport (Kerr et al., 2020). According to Kerr et al. (2020), starting in 1996, all NSOs (and later PSOs) who received public funding were required to fulfill the following obligations:
- Create and share a publicly-accessible harassment policy
- Identify two third-party trained Harassment Officers (one male and one female) to address complaints
- And to report annually on their compliance with the above requirements to Sport Canada in order to maintain their funding
Harassment policies at the time (and currently) were largely guided by a policy guide that assisted sport organizations in the development and implementation of harassment policies, created by Canadian Women and Sport (Kerr et al., 2020).
Despite the progressive nature of the developments in 1996, a study conducted 20 years later to assess compliance of Canadian sport organizations showed cause for concern (Kerr et al., 2020). While 86% of NSOs and 71% of PSOs had harassment policies, less than half met the requirement for public accessibility (Kerr et al., 2020). In addition, these policies failed to adequately address psychological and physical maltreatment, focusing mainly on sexual maltreatment (Kerr et al., 2020). Only 27% of PSO and 39% of NSO policies identified a harassment officer, though many of these did not train both a male and a female officer (Kerr et al., 2020). Of particular concern, none of the PSOs or NSOs had a third party harassment officer; instead, the role was typically fulfilled by the CEO of another staff member within the sport organization (Kerr et al., 2020). Lastly, the researchers found that none of the NSOs and PSOs were denied funding, despite not meeting Sport Canada’s compliance requirements (Kerr et al., 2020). In response to this, sport organizations identified both a lack of capacity and will to fulfill their compliance requirements, leaving children, youth and adult athletes once again vulnerable to maltreatment (Kerr et al., 2020).
Recent High-Profile Cases Emphasize The Role of the Bystander
Recent high-profile cases of abuse in sport (from 2011-2020) in both the United States and Canada further emphasized a lack of organizational and bystander intervention when instances of child, youth, and athlete maltreatment have occurred (Kerr et al., 2020). In the cases of both Larry Nassar and Jerry Sandusky, multiple individuals with the sport organization knew that acts of sexual abuse had occurred, but did not report the abuse to the appropriate authorities, allowing the abuse to continue for years (Kerr et al., 2020). In the words of Mitch Garabedian, a lawyer representing some of the survivors of abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in Boston, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one” (Kerr et al., 2020).
Developments from 2018 and Beyond
Kirsty Duncan’s Mandates
In 2018, Kirsty Duncan, a former athlete, assumed the role of the federal Minister of Science and Sport (Kerr et al., 2018). In 2018, she took a firm stance against abuse in sport, mandating that all NSOs who did not disclose abuse or harassment occurring in their organizations would lose their federal funding (Kerr et al., 2020). Further, she required that in order to receive federal funding, all sporting organizations needed to establish an independent, third-party investigation process for all allegations of maltreatment and that mandatory prevention training was required to be in place by April 1, 2020 (Kerr et al., 2020). While on the surface this represented an important advancement in athlete protection, in actuality, this was a repetition of the compliance requirements from 1996 that had yet to be adequately met by Canadian sport organizations (Kerr et al., 2020).
The Red Deer Declaration for the Prevention of Harassment, Abuse, and Discrimination in Sport was endorsed in 2019 by the Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Ministers of Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation (Kerr et al., 2020). Within the Declaration, a specific commitment was made to prevent and respond to abuse, harassment, bullying, and discrimination in sport (Kerr et al., 2020).
Minister Duncan also directed the development of a Universal Code of Conduct in sport, created to identify unacceptable behaviours for all members of the National Sport community (Kerr et al., 2020). The Code was created in part through a series of Safe Sport Summits held across Canada in 2019, led by the Coaching Association of Canada, where stakeholders contributed to defining prohibited behaviours and identifying sanctions for athlete maltreatment (Kerr et al., 2020). Unfortunately, the majority of these summits focused solely on sexual abuse in sport, neglecting to focus on the wider range of physical and psychological harms experienced by athletes on a broader scale (Kerr et al., 2020). However, the voices of athletes at the National Safe Sport Summit pushed for a broader focus of maltreatment, focusing on sexual, psychological, and physical forms (Kerr et al., 2020). In addition, the role of the bystander was further emphasized through clearly identifying adults in positions of authority over young people as ethically and legally accountable for reporting maltreatment, both witnessed and suspected, even if the level of maltreatment did not constitute a criminal offence (Kerr et al., 2020).
Prioritizing the Voices and Experiences of Athletes
Research from a study assessing the prevalence of maltreatment amongst Canadian national team athletes identified the breadth of maltreatment and the need for third-party intervention (Kerr et al., 2020). 17% and 23% of current and retired athletes, respectively, reported experiencing psychological abuse; further, 15% of current athletes and 22% of retired athletes had experienced neglect (Kerr et al., 2020). Fewer than 15% of athletes formally reported their experiences, while less than half of current and retired athletes never disclosed what they had experienced (Kerr et al., 2020). Among their reasons for not reporting the maltreatment they experienced, athletes identified that they didn’t know who to report to; that they did not have a safe or confidential space to report their concerns without fear of negative consequences for their athletic careers; and that they did not trust their sport organization to address their concerns adequately or fairly (Kerr et al., 2020). In general, athletes view the self-regulation of sport organizations as inadequate to address maltreatment fairly and effectively (Kerr et al., 2020).
At the National Safe Sport Summit in 2019, athletes clearly and strongly voiced the need for healthier sport environments and a stronger advocacy role in the decisions affecting them (Kerr et al., 2020). They called to address all forms of maltreatment; require mandatory education for all sport stakeholders; strengthen accountability measures for sport organizations; and for the implementation of an independent body to receive, investigate, and resolve allegations of maltreatment, and to apply sanctions in individual cases (Kerr et al., 2020).
The Canadian Sport Helpline & The Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada
The Canadian Sport Helpline was established in 2019 as a resource to help guide the next steps of any individual who is concerned about maltreatment in sport (Kerr et al., 2020). Operating as a triage service, individuals are either directed to the police, child protection services or back to their sport organization (Kerr et al., 2020). However, as most complaints do not meet a criminal threshold, the majority of instances of maltreatment are instead directed back to sport organizations to handle internally, which, as described in depth above, often results in complaints being handled unfairly and/or inadequately (Kerr et al., 2020).
Also in 2019, the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada was contracted to provide independent investigations to support sport organizations in addressing instances of maltreatment (Kerr et al., 2020). However, some of the larger NSOs appointed their own ‘independent’ investigators, who were often existing employees of the organization in positions of power (Kerr et al., 2020). Even when complaints are handled externally, the responsibility for handing down and implementing sanctions still remains with the sport organization, creating a clear conflict of interest (Kerr et al., 2020).
A New Way Forward
The information above clearly identifies the need for a new way forward to achieve Safe Sport in Canada. In order to truly make change, we need to imagine a new way forward that centres around the voices and lived experiences of athletes and the protection of children and youth. Approaches should be proactive versus reactive and focus on the creation of a culture of sport that prioritizes child, youth, and athlete well-being and enjoyment of sport over winning at all costs (Kerr et al., 2020).
The calls of athletes for a fully independent organization to handle child, youth, and athlete protection must be heard, and athletes are critical voices in the development of this system (Kerr et al., 2020). Further, an independent investigative process must be employed whenever a complaint is identified as a violation of the Universal Code of Conduct (Kerr et al., 2020). Sanctions should also be handed down entirely independently, free of conflicts of interest (Kerr et al., 2020). These processes should be fair, transparent, and accessible to all stakeholders in sport to follow and understand (Kerr et al., 2020). In addition, anyone who has experienced maltreatment in sport should have timely access to appropriate supports and resources to support their short-term well-being and to prevent long-term negative impacts (Kerr et al., 2020). Lastly, funding structures should be reframed beyond athlete performance to include athlete well-being, development, and the promotion of the rights of children, youth, and athletes (Kerr et al., 2020). The leaders of today are in an important position to learn from the mistakes of the past and to create a new way forward where all children, youth, and athletes can participate in sport safely.
Kerr, G., Kidd, B., & Donnelly, P. (2020). One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Struggle for Child Protection in Canadian Sport. Social Sciences, 9(5), 68.