Harassment in Sport Blog Series – Blog One: Looking Back

Dec 16, 2015


Harassment in Sport Blog Series

The intention for this four-part blog series on harassment in sport is to review the past, assess where we are and chart a course forward that addresses harassment both on and off the field of play. Recent major events in Canadian society – from inappropriate behaviour by Members of Parliament to shocking claims against the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi to Marcel Aubut and the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) – have shown us that harassment is not only a field of play issue – it also still exists in our offices and boardrooms.

Over the past two decades, the Canadian sport sector has had to grapple with the issue of harassment in sport and we realize, as we step back today and assess where we are, that much still remains to be done. What has sport done in the past? What are we doing now? What should we do in the future?

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC), and the Sport Law & Strategy Group (SLSG) have partnered together to explore answers to those three questions in a four-part blog series published by all four partners over the next few months. We encourage your comments (by email to safesport@sportlaw.ca) and we will share key comments, future discussion points, and actionable items in a fourth and final “call-to-action” blogpost.


Blog One: Looking Back

This blogpost focuses on looking back on what we have been doing in Canadian sport to reduce instances of harassment, abuse, violence, and bullying. Early work looked at harassment in sport through a gender lens – with the first significant instance being the CBC’s fifth estate program airing a short documentary in 1993 that featured female athletes from swimming, rowing, and volleyball speaking about being harassed by their male coaches. In 1994, a survey of 266 national-level athletes revealed that 22.8% had had sexual intercourse with persons in positions of authority over them in sport. CAAWS responded with the best early harassment-focused publication Harassment in Sport: A Guide to Policies and Procedures and Resources (1994) which was written in part by Rachel Corbett (co-founder of the Sport Law & Strategy Group).


The early 1990s saw the creation of the “Harassment and Abuse in Sport Collective” (a collection of sport organizations) and the publication of various resources aimed to reduce harassment in sport. The Collective led efforts to produce a now-defunct website (you can access an archived 1998 version), generic harassment policies which Sport Canada required NSOs to enact, a harassment information line, and other informative resources that were stored in a registry on the website.


Sheldon Kennedy – our tipping point

Though it had already been established that girls and women had been subject to harassment in sport, it wasn’t until 1997 when NHL player Sheldon Kennedy revealed that he had been sexually abused by his coach that Canadian sport began to pay closer attention to issues of athlete maltreatment. An Action Plan was created in 1998 and Hockey Canada, in conjunction with the Canadian Red Cross, developed Speak Out!… Act Now: A Guide to Preventing and Responding to Abuse and Harassment in Sport (which is archived here).


That resource built the standard for current harassment response and prevention efforts that we still follow today. For example, the Screening Personnel chapter of that resource described separating personnel positions into ‘low risk’, ‘medium risk’, and ‘high risk’ – which has become ingrained as part of the standard screening practice in sport. Also, the first chapter of that resource suggested two approaches to developing policies about harassment and abuse – either integrate current codes of conduct and discipline policies OR create a separate harassment policy.


Organizations did in fact take different policy approaches (with Sport Canada, at one time, requiring National Sport Organizations (NSOs) to have a stand-alone Harassment Policy in order to receive funding) but we now know that a comprehensive integrated Code of Conduct alongside a Discipline and Complaints Policy is the preferred approach. Rachel Corbett wrote about the reasons for that preference, as well as the changes she saw between 1994-2012 in organizations’ approaches to harassment and abuse.


In the late 1990s, stand-alone harassment and abuse policies included the creation of harassment officers, who would be individuals appointed by the Board of Directors to be the point-of-contact for harassment incidents in each sport organization. Harassment officers received training at harassment workshops – but many officers still felt under-qualified because of the complex subject matter, lack of experience, and the severe consequences of mistakes. Harassment officers were also tasked with investigating the harassment claim and were confronted with barriers ranging from confidentiality to honesty. Though some clubs still retain the position of harassment officer (and though Sport Canada until very recently required organizations to have this position as a funding requirement) this dated notion has, like stand-alone harassment policies, fallen out of regular use.


Back in 1997, the Coaching Association of Canada produced Power and Ethics in Coaching (archived description, scanned Unit III: Boundaries). This resource focused on the power dynamic in the coach-athlete relationship and the consequences and results of abusing that dynamic. Nearly twenty years later, as a result of the Marcel Aubut situation, freestyle skiing Olympian Jennifer Heil called for a nationwide conversation on power and abuse, saying “We really need to take this opportunity to scrutinize and to self-examine the abuse of power at many levels”. It is interesting to note that the resources required to deal with these issues were available as far back as 1997, which indicates that resources alone are not enough to stop the abuse of power.


What has happened since the late-1990s? Why haven’t we been more proactively engaged in ensuring that sport offers a safe, welcoming and respectful environment, both on and off the field of play?


True Sport Secretariat Report – Harassment Situation Analysis & Needs Assessment

By the early 2000s, the Harassment and Abuse in Sport Collective had dissipated and the harassmentinsport website was no longer in operation. But in 2003, the CCES and the Ethics Secretariat brought together stakeholders for a Sport We Want Symposium with the intention of creating a national strategy for values-based Canadian sport (Symposium report). True Sport was created from these efforts along with the True Sport Principles. Importantly, one of the Principles is: “Respect Others: Show respect for everyone involved in creating a sporting experience, both on the field and off.”


In 2004, the True Sport Secretariat published Harassment & Abuse in Sport: Situation Analysis & Needs Assessment, written by Tom Kinsman. Based on interviews with key stakeholders in the sport community, this comprehensive report identified the following key areas of concern and need:

  • The challenges created by the dissolution of the Collective and the end of the harassmentinsport website. Why was the website allowed to become inactive?“Efforts are needed to increase the accessibility, frequency, and penetration” of existing activities and resources
  • The need for expert help in the development and implementation of policies for conduct and harassment
  • A broader awareness of the need for screening (including police records checks)
  • That policies are not enough – a harassment and abuse strategy is needed to support the policies – “policies are the place to begin”


A holistic reading of the Kinsman Report suggests that most of sport’s efforts have been focused on the participant – with the Kennedy situation (coach/volunteer abusing younger athlete) framing most initiatives since 1997. In fact, one of the stated objectives of Sport Canada’s 2003 “Accountability Framework for National Sport Organizations” (precursor to the Sport Funding and Accountability Framework (SFAF)) explicitly referred to participants:


“Fairness in Sport Objective: To create and maintain a sport environment that adheres to the highest ethical principles, ensuring that participants are treated fairly and with respect.


Similarly, the Canadian Sport Policy 2002 (CSP 2002) set out a broad vision for sport over the next ten years. Part of this vision was to have an athlete-centred sport environment free from harassment: “Ethical conduct in sport involves the promotion of athlete health and safety; the rigorous struggle against doping, harassment, abuse, and violence; and procedural fairness and transparency in decision making”. The CSP 2002 further pledged to adopt the Canadian Strategy for Ethical Conduct in Sport: A Policy Framework (2002) which had three broad goals, yet a twelve-point vision statement that narrowed the focus of ethical conduct primarily onto the participant.



  • To reduce and prevent unethical behaviours in sport
  • To increase ethical conduct in sport
  • To create and sustain a supportive environment within Canadian sport for ethical conduct



  • 2. Participants in sport and physical activity do so in a manner that adheres to the highest ethical principles
  • 3. Those who participate in sport receive from their fellow athletes, coaches and officials, and parents/guardians and spectators, fairness and ethical treatment in a safe and welcoming sport environment, free of harassment and abuse


A Strategy to Move Beyond the Field of Play

If the Sheldon Kennedy incident was one of the catalysts for an athlete-centred focus on harassment in sport, will the Marcel Aubut situation stimulate a focus on expectations on respectful and safe practices in the work environment? We are already seeing examples in other areas of Canadian society. Expansion of legal definitions of harassment between the mid-1990s and 2015 has seen five provinces strengthen definitions of workplace harassment and bullying. Ontario specifically has taken a recent lead to publish an action plan about sexual harassment and pledge specific updates to its Occupational Health and Safety Act that will require additional obligations onto employers to better protect employees.


Is sport presently in a position to react to these new developments? How are our policies communicated and implemented? What do prevention measures and procedures look like? Given the renewed focus on this topic, what is the sport sector’s responsibility to ensure safety extends beyond the field of play into the executive office? Are we prepared to move beyond managing-by-objectives to a philosophy of management that is centred on values and ethical conduct?


The Kinsman Report in 2004 suggested that there was no apparent trans-Canada campaign aimed at developing awareness of a safe and welcoming sport environment. The good work that we have done in the past (Harassment Policies, True Sport Principles, broad goals for ethical conduct, etc.) was arguably not enough to stop harassment in sport. In an article posted earlier this month, NHL player Patrick O’Sullivan pointed to the power of bystanders who could have changed years of abuse he suffered as a young child. We all must work together to create systematic change.


In our next blogpost (published in late January) we will explore what organizations are currently doing to battle harassment in sport – both on the field and in the boardroom – and if these measures meet basic legal requirements. We will review current resources and look for potential gaps in our approach. Finally, we will speak to some of the stakeholders who have seen the evolution of our efforts, our shifting attitudes, and the possible barriers to ensuring a respectful environment both on and off the field of play.


Do you have any comments so far?  Send them to safesport@sportlaw.ca



For more information contact:

Lorraine Lafrenière, CAC at 613- 235-5000 ext. 2363 or 613-769-6772

Dina Bell-Laroche, Sport Law & Strategy Group at 613-591-1246

Karin Lofstrom, CAAWS at 613-562-5667

Paul Melia, CCES at 613-521-3340 x3221