Addressing athlete maltreatment within sport organizations

12 minute read
26 March 2021


Sexual abuse cases often make headlines when they are reported. Very sadly, the situations are woefully under-reported and not as rare as the headlines imply. A wide range of forms of maltreatment exists in sport. Maltreatment can have far-reaching effects on an athlete's physical, psychological, social and spiritual health. Maltreatment is an umbrella term including all forms of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, bullying, neglect, harassment and discrimination.[1] Maltreatment involves an act or omission resulting in or having the potential to result in harm.[2] Although not universally defined, "Safe Sport" emerged to address all forms of maltreatment while promoting physical and psychological welfare. Safe Sport policies aim to create environments where individuals can thrive and perform without fear of maltreatment. Notably, concerns about Safe Sport extend not only to athletes but also coaches, officials, and volunteers.

Sport organization governance policies to address issues of maltreatment

Viable athlete protection policies and procedures are essential to creating a safe sporting culture. In Canada, efforts to address maltreatment in sport exist at all levels of competition – club, provincial/territorial, and national. Athletes, coaches, officials, volunteers and sport organizations are not immune to being held accountable to maltreatment complaints.

Where an athlete, coach, volunteer or participant wishes to file a maltreatment complaint, or a complaint is made against them, they should review their applicable sport's website for appropriate policies and procedures to follow. Provincial/territorial sport organizations ("PT/SO's") and national sport organizations ("NSO's") have their own policy and procedures to deal with athlete maltreatment complaints. As a condition of funding, NSO's and PT/SO's typically must establish a formal process applicable to staff and members for reporting and investigating maltreatment complaints.

Maltreatment-related policies and procedures will outline the scope of maltreatment, where to seek support, and the appropriate steps to file a complaint. Athletes are also encouraged to review their organization's Athlete Agreement. These contracts often require members to comply with the organization's policies and avoid engaging in maltreatment.[3] Athletes should understand the contract terms and the broad scope of maltreatment.

Athletes participating in local sports should check whether their local club offers clear, formalized policies to address maltreatment. For example, the Etobicoke Swim Club clearly provides Safe Sport information on their Club website while also endorsing Swim Ontario and Swim Canada guidelines.[4]

Some local sports clubs are affiliated with a recognized provincial sport or multi-sport organization ("PSO/MSO") and have access to the PSO/MSO policies.[5] PSO/MSOs regulate all areas and levels of their sport's participation within the province and all PSO/MSO's must post certain policies[6] on their websites. For example, Ringette Ontario has a clear set of Safe Sport policies in place to report various forms of maltreatment.[7] If a violation of one of these policies occurs, the incident can be reported to the Executive Director of Ringette Ontario. Additionally, Athletics Ontario has developed a Safe Sport Policy Manual which addresses various forms of maltreatment.[8] Complaints can be reported with a private and confidential complaint form[9] which are reviewed by Safe Sport Officers. Depending on the type of issue, different processes will be followed to address the complaint.[10] Although there are different approaches to addressing maltreatment complaints amongst PSO/MSOs, the overarching principles remain the same.

PSO/MSOs must be endorsed by an NSO funded by Sport Canada.[11] All NSO's that receive federal funding through the Sport Funding and Accountability Framework ("SFAF") must meet specific governance requirements. NSO's receiving SFAF funding must have existing policies in place to address maltreatment, including harassment and abuse, dispute resolution, conduct and conflicts of interest.[12] Within these policies, a formal process must exist to address complaints.[13] An important part of NSO's process for receiving and addressing maltreatment complaints is the establishment of a third party case manager to receive and process complaints on the NSO's behalf.

In order to receive Sport Canada funding, all NSO's must also have a discipline and appeal procedure in place, including access to independent dispute resolution through the Sports Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada ("SDRCC").[14] Besides dispute resolution, the SDRCC also offers a third-party investigation unit to address maltreatment within federally funded sports organizations.[15] After a complainant files the complaint pursuant to the NSO's applicable code of conduct or policy, a Safe Sport Officer will determine if the complaint requires investigation.[16] If an investigation is necessary, the NSO may select an investigator to look into the complaint. Following the NSO's investigation, and potential subsequent hearing or appeal, parties to the complaint may also have a right of appeal to the SDRCC, provided the NSO's internal dispute resolution procedure has been exhausted.

All sport organizations are free to structure their governance and sport policies as they deem fit. The policies must complement one another to create a clear pathway to dealing with situations of maltreatment, among other issues. Although the governance structure and policies from organization to organization may vary, the overarching principles remain the same – promoting physical and psychological welfare while creating environments where individuals can thrive.

[1] Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport "Discussion Paper: Athlete Protection and Maltreatment in Sport" (March 2015) at 3 [CCES]; Gretchen Kerr et al., "Prevalence of Maltreatment among Current and Former National Team Athletes" (April 30, 2019) at 7.

[2] Kerr, ibid.

[3] For a sample contract, see the Government of Canada "MODEL Athlete/National Sport Organization (NSO) Agreement" (April 2019). see also Rugby Ontario, "2020 Provincial Athlete Agreement"

[4] Etobicoke Swim Club, "Safe Sport" (2020)

[5] For a list of recognized PSOs see Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, "Recognized Provincial Sport Organizations" (November 21, 2018).

[6] Policies must include a discipline, dispute resolution, harassment, concussion management and return to play, membership, selection, privacy, accessibility, inclusion, screening, confidentiality, social media, anti-doping and codes of conduct. See Government of Ontario, "Sport Recognition Policy for Provincial Sport Organizations and Multi-Sport Organizations: A Game ON Commitment" (2016) at 8–11.

[7] Ringette Ontario "Safe Sport: Policies" (2020).

[8] Athletics Ontario, "Safe Sport Policy Manual" (July 2020).

[9] Athletics Ontario, "Complaint Form" (2020).

[10] For example, to report abuse Athletics Ontario follows processes set out in the Complaints, Dispute Resolution and Discipline Policy found within the Safe Sport Policy Manual.

[11] For a list of National Sport Organizations see Government of Canada, "National Sport Organizations" (December 24, 2019); for a list of National Multisport Service Organizations see Government of Canada, "National Multisport Service Organizations" (March 1, 2020).

[12] Heritage Canada, News Release, "Minister Duncan Announces Stronger Measures to Eliminate Harassment, Abuse and Discrimination in Sport" (June 19, 2018) see also CCES, ibid at 3.

[14] Supra note 13.

[15] Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, "Investigation Unit"

[16] Sport Dispute Resolution Centre, "Investigation Unit: Investigation Guidelines" (December 14, 2018) at 6

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