Recently CBC presented a three-part series entitled “Shattered Trust: Sexual offences in amateur sport.” The investigation revealed that at least 222 coaches have been convicted of sexual offences against more than 600 victims under the age of 18 in the past 20 years.
If we truly want to address the issue of coach abuse of young athletes, we need to look critically and realistically at the different risks young people face in different sporting contexts.
In amateur sports, I believe two things are needed: support for parents in educating their children about the grooming techniques of predatory coaches, and a simple and expedient independent reporting mechanism.
Efforts to date to keep young people safe
Ideas that the federal government is now raising follow earlier reform attempts.
After a working group released its report, criminal record checks have been required every four years in order for coach certification through the Coaching Association of Canada to be current. An educational component about making ethical decisions was also added to the association’s certification program.
Coaching certification doesn’t always happen in grassroots amateur sport. However, a rigorous screening process for coaches working with minors came into place, including criminal record checks and what’s known as a “vulnerable sector check” that verifies if a person has a pardon for sexual offences.
Through this, and also based on anecdotal evidence from conversations with some victims, I believe sexual predators know what they’re doing is wrong.
For the tiny percentage who may actually not see their actions as harmful, a brief online course won’t change their misguided perception.
I also teach sport ethics at the University of Winnipeg. Even addressing boundaries at what seems to be the most basic level requires people talking to each other. This is difficult stuff to talk about.
It could be the case that more intensive education like this might prevent particular forms of exploitation and inappropriate behaviour — for example, by challenging understandings of power, sexual consent or sexual harassment.
But successful coaching requires intimate knowledge about a person in order to prescribe training and elicit a peak performance. Predators in any profession can inappropriately exploit this knowledge and groom potential victims.
Requiring all parent volunteer coaches to follow online training I think is redundant and adds unnecessary cost and time to decent coaches.
Where education could be particularly helpful is with supporting parents in educating their children about the dangers of predatory coaches.
The problem with police checks
Additional screening is also sometimes floated as a route to safer sport.
But there are several problems with police checks. Most obviously, this measure does nothing to prevent people from coaching with the intent or risk of abusing children who have no records. People with criminal records don’t get into coaching.
In 2012, Alix Krahn (now a coach at York University) and I wrote an article for Coach Plan, a newsletter of the Coaching Association of Canada, questioning the value of police record checks for coaches. We asked what more could be done if that money was spent elsewhere to improve safety.
By requiring police checks, we also exclude people with convictions for crimes such as tax evasion that don’t put children at risk or impact coaching ability. Police record checks only indicate a criminal record, not the reason for the criminal conviction.
As with additional moral education, extra requirements for screening may simply turn away good volunteer coaches, making it more difficult to deliver grassroots sport.
A new approach
The solution is better-informed parents and athletes and a clear, open, expedient and supportive reporting structure.
In search of swift political action, we should not obscure the different contexts of sport. Being alone in a hotel with a coach at an Olympic event is a far cry from little league baseball where parents supervise everything.
Further research is needed to understand the particular and exact cases where abusers have wreaked harm in sport and in individual lives to ensure the solutions we propose will be genuinely helpful.