It is disconcerting (but not surprising) that two sexual misconduct cases are dominating headlines in Canada, both involving two of our highest level sports organizations - Gymnastics Canada and Hockey Canada - that has lead to a withdrawal of federal funding until these organizations can prove themselves worthy.
The current case against Gymnastics Canada relates to alleged sexual misconduct (amongst other forms of abuse) by coaching staff against athletes while the case against Hockey Canada relates to sexual misconduct by athletes themselves. ‘Sexual misconduct’ is a light term. The different allegations range from sexual touching to group sex.
Whether the coaches or athletes are ‘convicted’ or not, some level of incorrect behaviour has occurred. Not all people involved in these organizations from an administrative or athlete perspective are bad – there are many, many good and safe people in all organizations. But there are some who stray.
What conditions contribute to this behaviour? In terms of sexual abuse by coaching staff, it is well known that when a person is in a position of power, possessing something that an underling wants (such as the knowledge and skills to promote you to world class level in something such as gymnastics or figure skating), the underling becomes vulnerable to abuse. Add to this hours spent together, some in private, which builds an unrealistic familiarity and bond and trust which weakens that boundary of safety. And, with long hours in the gym or arena, life is often isolated, with little outside influence from friends or activities which could provide a healthier perspective. Sonja Gaedicke, et al, in ‘Sexual Violence and the Coach-Athlete Relationship . . . . ‘ (frontiersin.org) provides some good insight.
In terms of sexual abuse by athletes, in this case junior hockey players, the situation appears ripe for abuse. Hockey is so important to the fabric of Canada that the saying “Canada is hockey” was coined. And when Canada is hockey, the athletes involved become Gods. I imagine this starts in childhood when whole families and lives and schedules are adjusted to meet the needs of the little hockey player. They just know they are special and important. Then they leave home early (as young as 14 years of age), and the ‘team' becomes their family, long before they are developed as human beings. By the time they reach major junior age, people dote on them, fans cheer for them, newspapers write about them, things are bestowed on them, and some are looking at large amounts of fame and fortune. It becomes easy to blur that fine line between confidence (which all top athletes need in abundance) and arrogance (which leads to misbehaviour). It’s a sense of privilege over things and people. Off the ice, a team hangs out together with few outside friendships and are bound by a code of silence (never speak of what happens in the dressing room or behind the scenes), and they become insular - ‘see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil’. Brock McGillis in 'The Hockey Canada scandal shows a culture in deep need of repair’ (theglobeandmail.com), paints a good picture of the toxicity that needs changing. He knows of what he speaks. (Don’t misconstrue this to mean that I am negatively categorizing all hockey players - some are absolutely lovely and safe and will continue to be so because that is who they are as people.)
What to do?
I imagine that Gymnastics Canada and Hockey Canada are way more proactive now than they were 20 years ago, with programs on respect and more focus on personal behaviour and consideration for others. This will go a long way, as will mandatory criminal history screening, rules to prevent one-to-one time between adults and children, encouragement to speak out (with no repercussions) when something does not feel right, purposeful education sessions about correct behaviour, maybe a cleaning of the 'house', so to speak, and better quality control. I hope that with this new knowledge and changes in all levels - administration, coaches, and athletes - misbehaviour of any type will be prevented.
Yes, the organizations have to take the reins on this, but we, as a society, as families, and as individuals, can also help to change the very culture of athletics. Don't make a dream so important that a young person is scared to confront wrong behaviour. Help them to recognize abuse. Encourage your child from a young age to speak up, always. Help your child to recognize people for who they are, not what they are.
Stop putting athletes on pedestals. See people as equal – the young fellow interested in science and mechanics is just as ‘important’ as the ‘jock’. Emphasize humbleness over achievement, especially if your child is really good at something. Role model correct behaviour in how to act and how to treat people. Keep grilling this into them, even when they leave home as a young teenager to pursue their dreams. Call out negative acts and don’t simply think that your ‘child’ would never engage in wrong behaviour (remember, group dynamics are strong). Stop stating that boys will be boys. Encourage other interests to prevent enmeshment in one activity or in one group of people - this would provide perspective about 'real' life outside of their sport (and also help them in the long run as sporting life only lasts so long, and then real life kicks in). And hold organizations accountable.
So, two major sports bodies in Canada are looking for answers right now. It is going to take a lot of work by these organizations to right their ships in terms of policies and quality control; but we can also do our share, as a society, to raise children who will call out misbehaviour or who do not become a perpetrator themselves.
Let’s hope we can get our priorities straight and ensure that athletics contribute to children becoming amazing adults - #1 in the sport of life.
(pictures are from Wix; views are my own)