We Must Play a Bigger Role In Keeping Sports Safe for Kids

Note from the author: Although this topic is outside of my usual niche of travel and animal welfare, sports played a large role in my childhood and influenced my adulthood. I felt like I needed to touch on the topic.

This morning, Thursday, February 21, 2019, CBC News and Sports broke the news that an investigation launched by the broadcaster revealed at least 222 coaches involved in amateur sports over 20 years have been convicted of sex offences involving more than 600 victims under age 18.

Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan and the Coaching Association of Canada announced new policies in Ottawa to address abuse and harassment in sport, saying the investigation and it’s results “broke her heart”.

According to the CBC, Duncan announced:

  • More than $200,000 will be allocated for a Safe Sport Summit Series aimed at helping develop a national code of conduct.
  • The creation of a Gender Equity Secretariat, a department responsible with the development and implementation of a gender equity strategy.

In March, a series of regional workshops will be held across Canada that will include:

  • Provincial, territorial and national sport organizations.
  • Athletes.
  • Safe sport organizations.
  • Groups independent of sport organizations such as researchers and child advocates.

​A national Safe Summit in Ottawa will be held in the spring, and beginning in 2020, sport organizations that receive federal funding must have a policy in place to address abuse and provide mandatory training to their members. They must also report incidents of abuse directly to the minister and will be required to make an independent third party available to hear athlete-abuse allegations — something athletes from a number of national teams have been pushing to get put in place.

Canada Army Run, 2016

But what about the kids playing in a recreational league without the resources national teams receive? What about the kids playing for a coach – often a teammates’ Dad, Brother, or Sister – with nothing more than an afternoon training session under their belt?

I want to stop now and make it clear – I was never the victim of sexual assault or harassment by any coach or authority figure.

But I learned lessons and made great friends through sports – both of which (the lessons and the friends) play a role in my life today. I can’t imagine how those would have played out if my time living life as an amateur athlete was scarred by incomprehensible actions by an irresponsible, dangerous coach.

The Cookie Run, Ottawa, 2014

I started playing sports when I was barely out of the toddler phase. My parents enrolled me in swimming lessons and figure skating. I went on to play, for various numbers of seasons and at various abilities (I’m sure some of these attempts were hysterical for my parents), gymnastics, tee-ball and baseball, soccer, karate, volleyball, competitive swimming, rugby, lacrosse, hockey, yoga, cross-country and track, skiing and snowboarding, surfing – I’m sure I’m missing something.

I went on to coach hockey for a few years, right out of high school. I’m 30 now, and am still involved with an organized sports team (the Ottawa Lions), snowboard recreationally, and play in the ocean with a surfboard when I can. These are still the moments that take my breath away – I’ll never forget my first race; the first time I made it down the hill without falling, or the first time I actually caught a wave.

But sports are more than just the adrenaline rush.

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon, 2012

Sports taught me patience. Sports taught me to respect others – my teammates, coaches, the other team, officials, and the parents who shuttled us around. Sports taught me how to problem solve, and how to be a leader. Sports taught me how to have confidence in myself, and how to trust the process. Sports taught me that it’s about progress, and not perfection. Sports taught me discipline, how to work hard, and how to have fun. Sports taught me balance. Sports taught me how to be tough, hang with the boys, and skate through the pain of a blocked-shot. But sports also showed me that when I’m passionate about something, my heart goes all-in. And that it’s OK to cry when my injuries aren’t physical, but instead are a bruised ego or disappointed soul. Sports taught me how to treat, and teach, others.

What happens when a wrench gets thrown into that, and the locker room or team road-trips become abusive places?

I can’t even imagine.

Playing for Oromocto High School in 2005

Unfortunately, Brian Jessup hasn’t been so lucky.

He spoke to the CBC as part of their investigation. As a former figure skater, he no longer laces up the skates or wants to remember that period of his life.

“I was robbed of being able to have a normal life and being successful,” he told them. “That opportunity was taken away from me.”

A natural talent, Jessup had big dreams and huge aspirations. But when he was 12, his coach, Kevin Hicks, began sexually abusing him. It lasted for six years. Jessup left figure skating at 19, tormented by what happened and unable to tell anyone. He spent the next 20 years abusing drugs and alcohol, before ultimately finding the courage to tell family, and then the police, what had happened to him.

His former coach was arrested and later convicted of sexual assault on both Jessup, and another skater.

It’s great that we’re implementing national strategies. But local sports clubs are largely left to fend for themselves when it comes to developing – and implementing – policies. CBC reported that, in some cases, local clubs and sports leagues have very little guidance from their national counterparts.

This means that amateur, volunteer coaches, are left with little training, oversight, or direction about how to effectively and appropriately interact with a child.
Jean-François Marceau, director of Judo Quebec, told CBC they take the safety of athletes seriously, but their concern is hindered by a lack of resources – Judo Quebec has only six full-time employees.

Jessup told CBC he’s concerned that kids involved in sports today are no better protected from potential abuse than he was more than twenty years ago.

Coaching Team, Oromocto High School Lady Blues, 2008

Where does that leave us? We have to be a second set of eyes and ears for the overrun, under-funded, and under-directed local organizations.

It’s time we all take responsibility to make sure the kids on the ice, or on the field, are safe, happy, and having fun. Not just our kids. It takes a village, right? Collectively, we as parents, fellow coaches, officials, league members, or arena staff, need to stand up for all of the athletes. They’re kids first, after all. And as adults, it should be our job to keep them safe. To ensure they’re given the opportunity to learn from sports everything I did. And most importantly, to make sure they’re given the opportunity to have fun and be kids.

We, as a community, have a responsibility to make sure what happened to Brian Jessup doesn’t happen to any more kids in sports.

The numbers revealed by the CBC investigation are shocking, to say the least. If those were reported incidents, we can only guess how many more athletes have suffered in silence.

As a country that celebrates our heroes, let’s work together to make sure the next generation trying to get to the top of the podium – or, just trying to escape the stress of math class – is given every opportunity to get there safely.

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