Who’s responsible for abuse in athletics?

A person in a burgundy shirt and grey toque stands with their hands outstretched, holding a buck (male deer) in their hands, with the intent of passing the buck to another pair of outstretched hands in the bottom-right side of the frame.
‘Hot buck’ doesn’t have quite the same ring as ‘hot potato.’ Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay manipulated by Lee Lim

With allegations mounting, is it organizations or governments who must take action?  

When an athlete is abused by a member of their athletic organization, who is deemed responsible? Canadian sport organizations say it’s difficult to stop abuse in sports, citing that jurisdictions make it nearly impossible. In 2019, a CBC investigation revealed that more than 200 coaches have been charged with sexually abusing athletes since 1998.  

National Sports Organizations (NSOs) are made of 64 governing bodies that each represent a different sport. NSOs range in different sizes and span sports from Canada Soccer to Water Polo Canada. Many CEOs of NSOs are saying that Safe Sport should fall under provincial jurisdiction instead of being a problem at the national level.  

Water Polo Canada CEO Martin Goulet said that “It’s unfair to hold NSOs accountable for cases of abuse and maltreatment that might have taken place at local clubs and associations. Most NSOs don’t have the capacity to do this. They won’t do a good job or they’re going to drain all their resources in this. And who is going to suffer? It’s going to be the athletes at the end of the day, because programs for athletes are already poorly funded.”  

Goulet added “I’m not going to take responsibility for things that I can’t control.” However, heads of provincial organizations are saying that it’s wishful thinking to believe that Safe Sport can be implemented at the provincial level where funding is also sparse at times. In response and trying to address abuse in sports, the federal Liberal government has created the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC) as one of their Safe Sport initiatives.  

The idea is for the OSIC to independently investigate athlete complaints, with the intention of having all federally funded sports organizations be required to participate in the OSIC. Noni Classen, the director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg, told CBC News that “We need a body that has actually been created for children alone, because children are different from adults, and they need to solely be putting the child at the centre.”  

Swimming Canada, who are one of the biggest NSOs in Canada, recognizes that they need to provide education and guidance, but acknowledges that their own capacities are limited. Swimming Canada’s Director of Operations and Sport Development Suzanne Paulins told CBC News that “We keep standing on our soapbox, telling everyone to pay attention to community and grassroots, and the conversation keeps happening about the national-level athletes, […] but we’re missing 99 per cent of the participation pool.”  

It seems like conversations regarding who is responsible for Safe Sport will continue to be discussed and debated, with a goal of developing an understanding as to who is deemed responsible given jurisdictions. The creation of OSIC is a step in the right direction that provides athletes with a safer option when deciding whether or not they feel comfortable launching a complaint against a coach.  

It is clear that work still needs to be done to address Safe Sport in Canada. However, it is a step in the right direction that potential solutions are being discussed and, in some cases, being implemented. Therefore, National Sports Organizations, provincial organizations, and local clubs owe it to their athletes to find a compromising solution that effectively addresses Safe Sport and protects athletes from abuse.  


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