When I saw that U Sports released a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement last month, I was pleasantly surprised.
Canada’s inter-university sport governing body tends to refrain from commenting on uncomfortable or challenging topics of conversation, so I applauded the gesture.
Until I read the final line:
“[W]e can all make the world a better place by addressing these issues head on and believe in providing outstanding environments and opportunities.”
I then realized that the statement was rendered meaningless in its irony—the organization had recently been confronted with a pair of #Metoo scandals involving powerful coaches, but instead of doing the right thing, its leadership ducked and covered. I suspect that U Sports' most recent statement was simply made out of social pressure to preserve a positive image on social media. Because when has U Sports ever addressed a contentious issue “head on”?
Just in the past year, two track and field programs have dealt with sexual harassment and assault scandals. In February, former University of Guelph athlete Megan Brown spoke out about the abusive culture that existed in Guelph under head coach Dave Scott-Thomas. As detailed in the Globe and Mail, Scott-Thomas groomed Brown for a sexual relationship when she was only 17, which resulted in longstanding effects on Brown’s mental health including an attempted suicide. During that investigation, dozens of former Guelph athletes (mostly women) also came forward to illustrate a “win at all costs” culture at the school, and the emotional and physical toll felt by multiple generations of some of our country’s most talented runners.
Just months before the revelations about Scott-Thomas surfaced, Andy McInnis of the Ottawa Lions, which provides coaching staff and training environments for the University of Ottawa varsity program, was found to have sexually harassed and body shamed athletes.
Athletes from both programs had courageously stepped up to share the abusive treatment to which they were subjected while competing for their respective schools under the U SPORTS banner. In both cases, U Sports did not conduct an investigation of either school, and took no remedial action.
The organization was silent again when Steve Boyd was relieved of his duties as head coach of Queen’s University’s cross-country team. Boyd is a brash and outspoken critic of what happened in Guelph, and engaged with the school's alumni on Facebook for its lack of transparency and floated difficult questions about accountability. He used terse words, but even those who he criticized felt he should not have been fired. Queen’s decision to not let Boyd have his job back, despite a reinstatement petition signed by more than 4,400 people and a persistent campaign by the school's athletes, shows that there is a culture of silence within Canada's academic institutions.
U Sports itself appears intent on protecting the image of member institutions and not athletes, instead seeking to silence dissenting voices. The organization even has it written in to its "Code of Ethics" in a section entitled "Public Image of University Sport:"
It is most important for the continual development and credibility of interuniversity sports that all 'differences' are settled through the procedures provided for such and that a united and supportive position is projected at all times to the general public and in particular to the news media.
Persons engaged in the activities of U SPORTS member institutions who use outside sources to express their grievances or disagreement should expect to be sanctioned for such action.
These three incidents shouldn't be taken by U Sports as threats to their "public image," but as severe warnings – it is probable that similar abusive cultures exist elsewhere under their jurisdiction, and by ignoring them the organization is effectively promoting this behaviour.
Over the last year it was shown that universities like Guelph and Queen’s do not have the student-athlete’s safety or best interests in mind when it conflicts with their own success or overall reputation. In such circumstances, it’s up to U Sports to protect these student-athletes and to actually govern member-universities — because if it doesn't do it, and the schools themselves can't be trusted to do the right thing, then who will?
It's time for us to take a stand in the running community. No matter how you feel about the language Steve Boyd used, being fired for speaking up is a dangerous precedent. It also may have intimidated other coaches and athletes from being outspoken, thus rendering our community vulnerable, hindering opportunities to truly evoke change. I don’t recall other head coaches vehemently condemning the behaviour of McInnis or Scott-Thomas, and I believe this is because they feared losing their jobs if they spoke out. U Sports can no longer afford to endorse silence, and must instead take the lead in addressing abuse in our sport. Because now we know what happens when they don’t.
Scott-Thomas’ behaviour was not exactly a secret — the president of the University of Guelph, their VP of student affairs, a Member of Parliament (and former Minister of Sport), the CEO of Athletics Canada, and others in positions of power knew about it. If training under a deviant coach was the perceived price to pay to collect banners, then U Sports at least owes these athletes a commitment to be better, and to take responsibility after failing generations of young people.
Shortly after their initial press release addressing systemic racism, U Sports posted a second statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which included a promise to review internal practices and a plan to form a committee that will address issues of racial injustice. This is a necessary gesture — U Sports has a responsibility to put BIPOC voices and performances at the forefront of varsity sports and help undo systemic racism. Still, I am skeptical that the organization will follow through.
Where was this leadership when Megan Brown bravely recounted her story? Is it that sexual abuse does not deserve the same level of response? Or that taking responsibility beyond releasing well-timed statements is too much to ask?
That second statement shows that U Sports wishes to at least appear committed more than ever to evoke change. It wants us to think that it has the ability to hold its member universities to account. But this change will only come with action and a proven track record. And now that all inter-university sport is suspended until 2021, all of us, including U Sports, are faced with a timely opportunity for introspection. It is not time to forget about where we were in February, or about the systemic failures that led us there. Real change isn't only carried out when it's convenient, and it is never as easy as a couple of press releases.