Making sport safer: the Sport Solution Clinic and the changing nature of sport disputes

September 23, 2021

By: Amanda Fowler and Greg Cherniak

Sport Solution: A Program of AthletesCAN

Over the past decade we have witnessed a quiet revolution in the sporting world that has rapidly grown much louder.

By their very nature, high-level athletes have always prided themselves on discipline, obedience, and respect for authority. A harsh coach was often seen as someone that would “toughen up” an athlete, and in many cases, inappropriate behaviour by high-level coaches was ignored or swept aside in the name of “team unity” and the “pursuit of excellence.” At a certain point, however, sporting culture began to change. We have seen numerous brave athletes come forward and challenge the orthodoxy of remaining quiet in the face of abusive coaching. Much like the bravery recently seen by Western’s student body in challenging toxic campus culture and abuse against women, Canadian athletes – the majority of whom are women – have channelled this same spirit to stand up for themselves.

In response to this shift, the Sport Solution Clinic expanded its legal services last year to include athlete representation in safe sport disputes. A “safe sport dispute” is commonly defined as a situation where an athlete has encountered harassment, abuse, and/or discrimination of any kind within their sport. Most commonly, this occurs within the athlete-coaching relationship.

The Sport Solution Clinic has since been retained by several female athletes, who – despite being from different national sport organizations (“NSOs”) – all brought safe sport complaints against their coaches.

The Sport Solution Clinic’s first safe sport case involved a national level athlete who, for three years, was a specific target for abuse, discrimination, and harassment from a coach while training on the development team. Despite having excellent performance results, she was left off the national team for several years because this coach held a position of power and influence on the selection committee. Additionally, other coaches and NSO staff witnessed the coach’s maltreatment towards this athlete and failed to report it or take any action to protect her. The athlete’s mental health was severely impacted and eventually affected her performance. 

We filed the complaint through the newly formed Safeguarding Tribunal at the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (“SDRCC”). The Safeguarding Tribunal is a new division of the SDRCC created entirely to handle safe sport and other disciplinary procedures arising from code of conduct violations. In this forum, and with protections put in place by us, as her counsel/representative, and the neutral third-party, the athlete had a unique opportunity to address her coach and the NSO directly.

The athlete settled at mediation having successfully negotiated both oral and written apologies from the NSO and the coach, among other terms. Most important to the athlete was that she persuaded the NSO to undertake a major overhaul of the organization’s safe sport policies and practices to safeguard current and future athletes against discrimination, harassment, and abuse.

At the same time, the Sport Solution Clinic was retained by another athlete who was named an alternate to a major sporting event. She refused to train further with her coach because of the coach’s long-standing psychological and verbal abuse towards her. This athlete’s story was not unique, but equally painful to hear: the coach abused her and her teammates for years while other coaches and NSO staff remained silent as they witnessed it happen. The athlete developed significant mental health issues for which she sought professional treatment. She was persuaded to come forward because the NSO indicated it could only act after it received a formal complaint. Her bravery motivated other teammates to file complaints against this coach, too. The investigation is actively ongoing.

The Sport Solution Clinic’s third case arose when a coach harassed their athlete at another major sporting event. The athlete’s coach publicly criticized her performance at the event on a social media platform, and then refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. The NSO attempted to conduct a safe sport investigation internally but concerns about fairness and conflict of interest persuaded the athlete to retain us and file the complaint through an independent third party. The investigation is in its early stages.

Unlike past cases, where women often waited to report maltreatment for decades once the risk of retribution was gone, these athletes had the bravery to file complaints as members on active rosters and even on Canada’s top teams.

These cases have revealed shortcomings in NSO safe sport policies and procedures. Athletes across programs who have experienced discrimination, harassment, and/or abuse have all reported instances where their NSO failed to protect them, to act when issues are raised, and to offer adequate mental health support. Safe sport policies are in place across Canadian sports, but by and large, NSOs are hesitant to put them into practice – even when evidence of maltreatment is brought forward.

The Sport Solution Clinic’s expansion into safe sport disputes is important because, as athletes recognize their rights and autonomy within high-performance sports in Canada, they should know they have trusted partners to turn to, free of charge. The Sport Solution Clinic has the experience to take on these cases – we know how to navigate this new tribunal successfully, and we have the track record to prove it. No athlete should have to go through a safe sport dispute alone.

The safe sport changes we have seen across Canada have largely been athlete-driven, but Canada’s athletes need partners in their quest to create lasting change. The Sport Solution Clinic, in partnership with Western Law and AthletesCAN, is committed to its new mandate regarding safe sport advocacy, and we plan to aid these athletes in creating NSO accountability and meaningful policy change.