Can The Toxicity Of Sport Culture Be Fixed?

Though the opening paragraph of this entry is indeed much more narrowly focused than the title would otherwise dictate, the reason was that my attention was strictly focused on Hockey Canada at the onset of writing this. I have since learned that hockey isn’t alone in having a questionable culture within its ranks and organizations, so as such the title has been altered to outline this observation.

Though Hockey is still the primary focus of this piece, it is not the only community that ought to get its house in order.

* * *

Today’s topic starts with a question on my part. What is Hockey Canada?

As a Canadian, I have heard about the organization in passing throughout my life, owing to its domineering presence in helping to foster Canada’s unofficial but insanely popular hobby of interest. But I have never had the inclination to look any further than the little that I knew.

Though that started to change as the organization started to come under fire in the past year or so, the question only entered my mind after coming across this article from the CBC.

As I embark on this journey, I will first openly admit to my readers that I come into this with a somewhat biased mindset. The news of Hockey Canada using cash to cover up sexual assault allegations against players it represented wasn’t exactly a great look. And in all honesty, Canadian hockey culture as a whole tends to irritate me in its continued conformity of toxic elements and lack of desire to change.
Some may call this an argument of Wokeism. I view it more as part of the longstanding and everlasting legacy of figureheads like Don Cherry.

Either way, my relationship with Hockey fans has not been positive for a VERY long time. Nonetheless, facts and figures are non-partisan, thus I will do my best to remain mostly neutral going forward.

Before I start to wade into the ugliness, let’s start first by answering my initial question . . . what is Hockey Canada?

According to Wikipedia, it is the national governing body of both Ice Hockey and Ice Sledge hockey in Canada. Since I was also curious, Sledge (or Para) Hockey is a neat adaptation of the original sport designed to include athletes with a physical disability in the lower half of the body.
According to the official Hockey Canada mission page, they oversee all officially sanctioned Hockey in the nation, from entry-level teams to Team Canada (performing in the World Championships and the Winter Olympics). Hockey Canada works in conjunction with many provincial and regional organizations within Canada and represents Canada in the International Ice Hockey Federation.

I will now switch to the CBC article I linked earlier.

CBC asked other sports organizations if they have funds like Hockey Canada. Here’s what they said

As Hockey Canada faces widespread criticism over three funds it used to settle several sexual abuse complaints out of court, governance experts say it’s actually a “good business” decision for an organization to protect itself against non-insurable claims — though most can’t afford to do so.

In one case, Hockey Canada used these funds to settle a multimillion-dollar lawsuit after a complainant alleged she was the victim of a group sexual assault involving World Junior players in 2018.

CBC News informally surveyed a dozen national sporting organizations (NSOs), and none admitted to having similar funds.

Many NSOs are in the process of switching their complaints process to one provided by the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC) and its Abuse-Free Sport Independent Complaint Office, although some still have their own internal reporting systems, or use independent third parties to deal with such claims.

First off, it isn’t surprising to me that the Hockey Canada treasury would be much more full than that of other sporting organizations. And that they keep a segment of this cash aside for quote non-insurable claims isn’t all that out of the ordinary (I’m sure all businesses of scale have such a fund). The question I have is what Hockey Canada’s definition of non-insurable claims is.

Though these things are not going to be officially documented, you can determine them by knowing what purposes the fund was used for in the past. Has it been used to settle other problems, or is it just a war chest for when an inconvenient truth is exposed about hockey players backed by Hockey Canada at nearly every step of their career?

That the necessity of such a fund is seemingly deemed necessary potentially speaks volumes about the toxicity of the culture that these players are a part of in their rise to peak performance.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. After all, the article clearly states that Hockey Canada is not the only sporting organization that would like to have such a fund available (though most can’t afford it). This would seem to speak to potential problems existing not just in the realm of hockey culture.

But moving on from that for now, I am interested in the proposed complaints process as created by the Office of the Sport Integrity Commissioner (OSIC).

The plan would have the OSIC formally accept complaints through its Abuse-free Sport Complaint Office, which would then forward the information to the relevant organizations and teams. While I like this approach (it makes it harder for organizations to bury thorny situations), it still does little to ensure anything is really done about the problem. Not to mention that not all organizations will utilize the office, to begin with (no doubt Hockey Canada will be one of those NSOs handling complaints in-house).

I feel like legislation may be the only answer to this problem. Otherwise, we’re just dealing with a Catholic Church of the sporting world.

Richard Powers, a lawyer and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says that though there’s “nothing the matter” with the existence of those funds — “it’s good governance and a very good business decision” — there are issues with “the transparency” about how fees paid by hockey families across the country were being used.

“That is really the critical factor here — and one of the things that they’re going to have to change moving forward, if they’re going to [attempt] to regain the trust of Canadians.”

No kidding.

Why does Hockey Canada have these funds?

Former Hockey Canada officials have confirmed the existence of the National Equity Fund and the Participants Legacy Trust Fund. 

A third fund was discovered by former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell, who was commissioned to look into a controversial reserve fund used to quietly settle uninsured liabilities — including sexual assault allegations. 

His interim report found the reserve fund is necessary, but he also uncovered serious flaws with how it has been handled

During a July 27 parliamentary hearing, Brian Cairo, Hockey Canada’s chief financial officer, told MPs the equity fund was set up in 1995, because “some risks can’t be insured” by commercial liability insurance.

“It was recognized that there are just some unforeseen circumstances where claims are not insured, and you can think of Graham James,” Cairo said, referring to the former junior hockey coach who was convicted of sexually abusing players in the 1980s and early 1990s. 

Of the nine claims paid out of the reserve fund for a total of $7.6 million, $6.8 million of those were related to the James case, Cairo said.

Well, that answers one of my questions. Also . . . Graham James. I had forgotten all about that very dark stain on Canadian Hockey’s reputation.

For those that don’t know, Graham James was a renowned coach within hockey circles for at least 3 decades. I’ll let Shelden Kenedy (one of his many victims) fill you in on some of the depravities of his tenure of coaching minors.

Sheldon Kennedy was coached by Graham James, a highly respected and nationally famous coach, as a junior-level hockey player in Winnipeg, and then during the late 1980s on the Swift Current Broncos of Canada’s Western Hockey League. Between the ages of 14 and 19, Kennedy was sexually abused by James. The abuse went on, twice weekly, between 1984 and 1990.

“Kennedy testified he was first abused when he received permission from his parents to spend the weekend at James’ house to discuss his future in hockey.” (Knight-Ridder, 1/9/97)

“Kennedy has said that James sexually assaulted him more than 350 times, beginning when Kennedy was 14. He said he was assaulted while playing on several clubs with which James had an affiliation.” (Knight-Ridder Newspapers, 1/9/97)

Kennedy said: “The coach is so respected. Your parents send you away and say, ‘Do what he says.’ At that age, you listen. That’s your first step if you want to play pro.” (Ottawa Citizen, 1/9/97)

“Kennedy describes his life as a lonely, living hell. He was sexually abused as a teen by Graham James, his coach and “father figure,” who controlled his hockey career and his daily life from the time he was 14 to 19. Kennedy found he was unable to make friends. Unable to trust and unable to love. Unable to feel “normal” unless he was drinking. Unable to turn a junior career into a solid National Hockey League career. Suicidal at times because inner turmoil haunted him. “You feel people are looking at you. I put up a shield. I didn’t let anybody in. It’s a very lonely way to feel. You never feel normal. You know something is wrong but you don’t know why it is like that,’ Kennedy said.” (Calgary Herald, 1/7/97)

A friend of Kennedy’s said: “The coach is a godlike figure — he holds all the cards. I guess in a situation like [Kennedy’s] a kid can go home, but that is the end of your hockey career. That is the problem. There is no way to turn.” (Washington Post, 1/8/97)

“He was 14 or 15 and James was 31 or 32 when the assaults began. Every Tuesday and Thursday for six years, Kennedy went to James’ house. Kennedy said, ‘He considered me his wife. There was absolutely nowhere for me to turn. I had no one, nobody.'” (Los Angeles Times, 1/7/97)

“When Kennedy was 15 he told James a lie – that he had been abused by a teacher – in the hopes that James would stop the molestation. ‘He didn’t even blink an eye,’ said Kennedy. ‘He kept me with him all the time. It was like we were married. It was unbelievable.'” (Calgary Herald, 1/7/97)

“Kennedy said if James was fired from one team and started coaching another he would ‘keep trading for me.'” (Toronto Sun, 5/9/97)

“‘You do not have a clue what to do,” Kennedy said. “You tell your mom and she makes you come home. You tell your friends and they will just portray you as a gay guy. It is just a very scary thing.'” (Detroit News, 1/7/97)

“Kennedy…said he considered suicide several times.” (Tampa Tribune, 1/11/97)

Fortunately for Shelden Kenedy, he would find some reprieve in his transition to the NHL just after this point in his life. He would go on to have a career playing for the Calgary Flames, The Detroit Red Wings and (my favourite team) The Boston Bruins. Interestingly enough, he was also born in my home city of Brandon, Manitoba.

If there is one thing that can be taken from this, it’s that a female with an accusation against anyone within the hockey system would have NO chance of being taken seriously if people wouldn’t even listen to the athletes themselves. Though I am unsure of how the culture exists now (it has been 20 years), the tendency of hockey fandoms to turn skilled players and coaches into almost god-like figures certainly does not bode well for improvement.

Have there been changes in terms of this toxic culture within hockey?

I honestly don’t know. If you like, feel free to leave your answer in a comment.

Sports ‘haves and have-nots’

While it may be good business practice, most NSOs can’t afford such funds — they’re just trying to survive, said Eric MacIntosh, a professor of sport management at the University of Ottawa. 

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a fund to protect against these unforeseen events? Ideally, yes,” said MacIntosh, who does research on culture and high-performance sport in Canada. He’s also a former junior hockey player and now coaches his own kids.

“In practice, I think it’s very difficult. Many national sport organizations in our country are underfunded, they’re understaffed. It’s a haves and have-nots in our Canadian sports system.”

Concordia University economics professor Moshe Lander says while he doesn’t know of any other NSOs with funds similar to Hockey Canada’s, he finds it hard to believe they don’t exist, since most sports carry similar risks of power imbalances between adult coaches and young athletes.

He said it’s also possible for organizations to confuse and distract the auditor general from discovering such funds. “There’s lots of ways that you can cover that stuff up,” he said.

“It really requires that it’s the victims that started coming forward saying ‘I was paid and I’m going to break my nondisclosure agreement because this is for the greater good. Go ahead. Sue me. Let’s see this in the public light.’ “

It strikes me as bothersome that the status quo seems to be based upon just assuming the worst. While I understand this viewpoint from an organizational risk perspective, the attitude also strikes me as being based on the notion of “Shit happens”. While it can be said to be true that chances of all possible outcomes rise along with the number of people you are tasked with dealing with, this isn’t an excuse for not attempting to provide preventative measures in an attempt to further limit liability.

But again, this is an assumption. Maybe there are things happening behind the scenes that I don’t know of. Again, feel free to leave a comment.

What other national sports organizations say

CBC News reached out to 12 other national sport organizations to find out if they have similar funds. 

Soccer Canada was the only one that did not provide responses in time for publication, though a spokesperson said the request was in the queue.

Considering that this link to an article detailing how Soccer Canada mishandled sexual assault allegations against a coach was shown right after this paragraph, were not off to a great start.

Athletics Canada

Athletics Canada does not have and has not had, as part of its budget, a contingency fund for non-insurable liabilities, said Caroline Sharp, a national teams communications specialist.

She would not directly answer if Athletics Canada, the national organization for track and field athletes, has ever settled a case out of court, saying because the spectrum of what behaviour constitutes abuse or harassment is so broad — from comments that can be perceived as harassment, to conduct involving grooming and sexual assault — the process allows for “informal resolution.”

“Athletics Canada is not privy to the total number of cases that have been resolved through informal means,” she said.

Since 2015, complaints of violations of the organization’s Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport have gone through Athletic Canada’s Commissioner’s Office, which Sharp says operates “completely independently” from Athletics Canada.

As of Mar. 31, 2023, complaints involving Athletics Canada will go to the OSIC.

While the initial reply comes across as a bit slimy, I like the mitigation strategy. Along with this, the organization does appear to be making it easier for whistleblowers to come forward, so overall a good result.

Though the CBC article goes on to cover the status of other sporting organizations, with most of them showcasing various levels of transparency and accountability relating to issues past and present. The related articles field contains one link about athletes calling out a toxic culture within gymnastics, and another outlining (from a previous victim’s perspective) how the culture surrounding most sports in Canada still has a long ways to go in terms of enabling whistleblowers.

* * *

When I started this entry, my focus was mainly aimed towards Hockey. Hockey culture was slash IS an easy punching bag since it’s both the most prominent sport one encounters in Canada (by far), and the sport I am most familiar with. Which isn’t saying much since I know very little about it.

Another reason why Hockey was so intensely in my sights was the fact that various forms of toxicity are well-known to be a part of the hockey scene, and have been that way for decades. And I’m not just talking about the horrors of Graham James or the sexual assault allegations against previous Team Canada iterations either. It’s the covert and overt sexism, racism and just plain old insufferably that often surrounds Canadian hockey culture.

If you are a rising star in a culture wherein you are regarded demi-god status, is it any surprise that this god complex can lead to actions betraying a feeling of cultural impunity?

Not really. After all, who are people going to believe? The well-regarded and well-known player or coach? Or some nobody?

We know what the answer to that question has been in the past. But are we doing any better?

As much as the culture of hockey (no doubt fueled by traits like toxic masculinity, male privilege, and white privilege) disgusts me, hockey is clearly not the only sport with a questionable working culture. It is just the sport with the most publicly-facing and interactive culture.

To bring this to a close, there will be some who will read this and either choose to disregard what is apparent from an outsider’s perspective or write it off as the rantings of the new phenomenon of Wokism. Those 2 groups are not likely ever to be reached and would likely rather see Hockey (or any other sport) burn to the ground instead of becoming more inclusive.

For the rest of us that are more interested in preserving these activities for new Canadians and generations alike, consider not being silent in the face of fellow representatives of your passion painting the whole of it in a bad way.

The solution to the problem is not covering it up by way of secret payments and NDAs. The solution is fostering a community wherein such problems are far less likely to exist. A community of open trust and accountability.

Though I was unaware when I started writing this article, a collaborative investigative work between CTV, TSN and Crave (released on CTV’s W5) outlines their own expose of the horrific state of affairs within the Canadian Gymnastics scene.

As if it were not apparent enough by now . . . No. This is not just a Hockey Problem.

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